On Airbnb, the small one-bedroom apartment seemed perfect, centrally located near Barcelona’s Palau de la Musica, a short walk from the seafront, and not too far from the Ramblas, the main walking avenue that cuts through the popular tourist district. It was located on the top floor of an old four-storey building overlooking an alley.
The property owner met me there, showed how things worked, and offered a word of advice before she left. “Just tell the neighbours you’re visiting and you’re a friend of mine.”
By the time she’d left and I followed minutes later down the narrow granite steps to the entrance lobby, a hand-written sign in poor English said that Airbnb bookings in the building were illegal, that I faced being reported to the police, and the apartment’s owner would be reported to the authorities. How’s that for a warm welcome to Barcelona! For the rest of my three nights there last summer, it was a sobering thought that the Policia Local or the Guardia Civil would be pounding on the door at any moment to haul me away in handcuffs for staying in the city. But the city has followed through on its threats.
Since January, the municipal officials have imposed a fine of €500,000 (Dh2.15 million) on anyone who merely advertises a Barcelona property on Airbnb or other similar accommodation portals. Simply put, Barcelona is a victim of its own success. In 2016, 32 million visitors travelled to Spain’s second-largest city of 1.6 million residents. Tourists love Barcelona — but the love isn’t mutual. As well as banning Airbnb lettings, the city has also halted the construction of any new hotel.
In June, the municipality polled residents, as it does regularly. Spain’s stubbornly high unemployment was a main concern for 12.4 per cent of people polled. Surprisingly, the fact that too many tourists came was the biggest concern for almost one-in-five Barcelonans. It was the first time tourism concerns have topped the city poll, adding to a growing feeling of “touristophobia” across Spain and Italy.
During the first days of August — a prime holiday season in Europe, when schools and colleges are closed and businesses shut up shop or switch to a tick-over mode to allow staff to enjoy the best of the continent’s weather — left-wing agitators have been targeting tourists in popular destinations, unfurling protest banners and throwing paint, feathers and confetti at the confused visitors as they enjoyed their annual summer doses of sun, culture and food.
There have been instances reported in Barcelona as well as the northern Spanish city of San Sabastian, in Majorca — a Balearic island in the Mediterranean, and on Gran Canaria in the Canary island off Morocco.
The campaign has also kicked off in Naples, Rome and Venice, where the city noted for its canals and islands is inundated by cruise ships disgorging up to 15,000 tourists daily to the already heaving hordes staying in the city’s hotels.
The common thread of the anti-tourist protests is one of a lack of affordable housing for the regular residents living in the too-popular destinations all-year round.
For property owners across Spain, short-term holiday lets in destinations such as the Baleric and Canary islands are a way of earning extra income — most of which falls beneath the radars of tax officials who are simply overwhelmed by the phenomenon to track down individuals. But that means too few apartments are made available for long-term letting, hitting low-income earners hard.
A modest two-bedroom flat in a holiday complex Lanzarote can generate €500 a week on holiday letting for 40 weeks of the year — with British, French, Italian and German families snapping up the bookings. On long-term let, the same property would generate €700 monthly. There’s a difference in earning potential of more than €12,000 annually for the landlord, without the legal responsibilities and red tape of dealing with long-term tenants. It’s not rocket science — but it is a trend that has sent rents rocketing. In Barcelona, the city has a vacancy rate of 0.2 per cent and the average monthly rent for a one-bedroom apartment starts at €800 — with young workers typically earning €1,100 monthly. In reality, this disparity between affordable and available housing vis-à-vis wages explains “touristophobia”.
The protests are even more surprising, given that the United Nations designated 2017 as the International Year for Sustainable Tourism for Development, and valued tourism at $7.6 trillion (Dh27.95 trillion) in 2016, with nearly 300 million worldwide working in the sector, and one job-in-ten on the planet dependent on people simply travelling somewhere else.
Last year, more than 75 million tourists visited Spain in 2016, the sector was worth €57 billion to the Spanish economy — of 5.5 per cent of its Gross Domestic Product. More than 2.7 million Spanish jobs depended on tourists, and that figure is expected to rise to three million in ten years’ time.
Ironically, Spain is benefitting from a long-forged reputation for sun-and-sand tourism, with terror attacks in Turkey, Egypt and Tunisia simply turning many holidaymakers away from resorts there.
For the left-wingers who see tourists now as an easy target for political frustrations, they are literally biting the hand of those who feed its economy, subsidise Spanish and Italian taxpayers — and tax dodgers — and who provide jobs and revenues to pay for colleges, classrooms, hospitals, roads, infrastructure and any range of government services and programmes that benefit year-round residents of the tourism destinations.
While these protesters may have ideological reasons for their protests, they need to focus not on tourists but on local officials who are responsible for city planning and housing policies.
And that’s starting to happen.
Venetian authorities are looking at imposing a “day tripping” tax on the tourists who are disgorged from the cruise ships daily. At €10 a head, with the monies collected by the cruise companies and passed on to city officials in much the same way airport taxes are collected and distributed, the fees could generate income to be used to build more affordable units on the outskirts of the city.
It’s an option also being considered in Barcelona. That, plus increasing the tax paid by holidaymakers on every night spent in a local hotel, would also generate revenues for the building of more social-housing units on the outskirts of the city and fund improved metro and tram lines to ease mobility.
The revenues generated by tourists and tourism should make even the most rabid social campaigner see the difference between ideology and idiocy.