Barcelona residents spell out problem of Airbnb illegal holiday rentals

Locals booked unlicensed accommodation using the site then called city officials to complain

Clara Blanchar
Activists unfurl a banner protesting against illegally let apartments.
Activists unfurl a banner protesting against illegally let apartments.GIANLUCA BATTISTA

Barcelona residents fed up with the huge increase in illegal apartment lets in the city through accommodation sites such as Airbnb found a novel way to protest the problem on Tuesday.

As part of an ongoing campaign to protest what they say is a virtual siege from tourists, the members of two local activist groups in the Catalan capital rented a holiday apartment near the city’s cathedral using Airbnb. They picked up the keys, entered and then called the town hall asking them to arrange an inspection of the property.

In May locals protested against the docking of huge cruise liners in Barcelona during the busy summer season

Municipal Inspectors who turned up to carry out a spot check confirmed the owner of the apartment – who also advertises four other properties on Airbnb – did not have the necessary paperwork to rent out the apartment.

That owner would now be banned from renting out the apartments, the officials said.

A spokesperson for one of the groups involved, the Association of Neighbors for Sustainable Tourism (ABTS), Daniel Pardo, said the purpose of Tuesday’s protest was to highlight “the damaging effects of the proliferation of holiday apartments in the city and the impunity of Airbnb.”

The presence of those apartments in one of the world’s most popular tourist destinations was squeezing out locals because it was pushing rents up and turning local communities into theme parks, Pardo said.

The activist highlighted the “complicity of Airbnb” saying the company “knows who has a license and who doesn’t but prefers not to make distinctions so as to exploit everybody and make money for large property owners”.

Airbnb knows who has a license to rent out apartments and who doesn’t but prefers not to make distinctions

Daniel Pardo, Association of Neighbors for Sustainable Tourism (ABTS)

The online accommodation portal “defends the sharing economy but is actually speculative”, Pardo said. Any property owners found using the site in an illegal manner should be banned, he concluded.

Around 40 percent of Barcelona’s 16,000 holiday apartments are rented out illegally by sites such as Airbnb, according to figures from the city’s town hall.

In July, Barcelona City Hall decided to tackle the problem by introducing a €1.3 million raft of measures to crack down on owners letting out apartments using sites like Airbnb without a license. The authorities set up a website and called on residents to report apartments being rented out illegally. As of mid-August around 500 complaints have been made.

But Airbnb has defended itself by saying European legislation does not require accommodation sites to systematically monitor for illegal activity on the part of owners. The responsibility for that falls instead to local authorities.

The company’s director general in Spain, Arnau Muñoz, said: “What Airbnb is calling for is the regulation of ‘home sharing’, a temporary arrangement, which is different from people who make a living from renting holiday accommodation. Home sharing leads to responsible and professional tourism which fits in with a city."

More than 70% of accommodation hosts using Airbnb in Barcelona only advertise one property, Muñoz added.

City inspectors on Tuesday said the owner of the holiday apartment near Barcelona cathedral would be issued a notice forbidding further operations on the site.

They added that notice could be issued when it was clear an apartment was being rented out for more than 31 days a year with evidence of a financial transaction having taken place. But the officials also stressed their job was not an easy one, saying that often intercoms in apartment blocks didn’t work or were incorrectly marked. Property owners also refused to simply open the door to them, something which had already happened on Tuesday morning, they said.

Barcelona - the fifth most popular Airbnb destination globally - receives almost 9 million visitors annually and tensions have been high in recent years with complaints that low-cost tourism is making life in the city unbearable.

In 2014, there were spontaneous protests in the city’s popular Barceloneta neighborhood against “drunken tourism” while protesters also took to the streets in May to complain about the docking of huge cruise liners in the city’s port, highlighting the downside of 2.6 million tourists pouring into the city during the summer season.

English version by George Mills.

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