In light of news that tourism is the biggest concern of Barcelona’s residents, City Hall has gone on the war path with a €600,000 fine against Airbnb – the biggest and most prominent of the holiday-rental and home sharing platforms.
Every six months Barcelona City Hall, known locally as the Ajuntament (in Catalan) or Ayuntamiento (in Spanish), surveys residents on their main concerns for the city. The latest survey reveals that tourism is the number one concern for the first time ever, knocking unemployment off the top spot. Concern about housing affordability in the Barcelona property market, which some argue is related to tourism, has doubled in six months, and is now in fifth place.
The survey doesn’t give us any insight into what Barcelona’s residents think should be done about tourism, but it does show that they are worried about it, and the impact it is having on the city.
The impact of tourism on Barcelona
As a resident I share that concern. Too much tourism, especially mass tourism, can overwhelm a smallish city like Barcelona, hollowing out neighbourhoods, driving up the cost of accommodation, and undermining the city’s unique identity. Just look at Venice, which has become a theme park from which most residents have fled, with just 55,000 residents left in the historic centre overwhelmed by 60,000 tourist a day. I don’t want that to happen to Barcelona, and I definitely don’t want a tourist rental apartment anywhere near me.
The question is, what’s to be done about it, bearing in mind that many people make a living from tourism, and it creates wealth for the city? That’s a separate question that I’ll leave for another day. But Barcelona City Hall, run by Ada Colau and her leftwing BComú party, have decided the answer involves going after Airbnb as a priority.
Barcelona to punish Airbnb and tourist rental apartments as a priority
The first step Colau took after the survey results came out was to announce plans to slap a fine of €600,000 on Airbnb for not complying with local regulations by allowing homeowners to advertise holiday-rentals without a licence. “Airbnb is crossing all the legal limits,” she said, adding she will continue “issuing fines until they abide by the law.”
Airbnb have responded with a statement saying it will appeal against the fine, claiming to be “profoundly saddened by the false declarations made by the Ayuntamiento”. Airbnb swear they want to collaborate with Barcelona to reduce problems, as they have done with more than 300 other local authorities, but say that Barcelona have rejected all their proposals. Airbnb claim Barcelona City Hall is more interested in conflict than agreement.
Since she won power two years ago Colau has been trying to limit the impact of tourism on the city by reducing the number of hotel licences issued, and by clamping down on short-stay rentals in the city, with limited success.
This week another problem has emerged – that of illegal sub-letting. It turns out that people are renting apartments in Barcelona on a long-term basis, and then sub-letting them whole or by the room to tourists, and using platforms like Airbnb to advertise them. City Hall has identified 316 cases of such illegal sublets so far.
Barcelona’s uphill struggle against holiday rentals
I suspect Barcelona City Hall is fighting an uphill battle against tourist rentals, albeit one that needs to be fought. Tourist rentals in Barcelona are just too lucrative, whilst City Hall has limited resources to control the problem. Which explains why Colau and her team are going after Airbnb as the main marketing platform for illegal tourist rentals in the city, and an easy target to make noise about.
But unless I’ve got it wrong, there’s little City Hall can do to stop Airbnb listing adverts for holiday-rentals in Barcelona that don’t comply with local regulations. And, I presume, there’s no chance that Airbnb will ever pay the fines.
I imagine that other cities around the world where growing tourist numbers are putting pressure on accommodation and worrying local voters will be watching Barcelona carefully.