The start of a problem
Forty years ago, Barcelona was not high on the tourist lists of must-see cities in Europe. But that changed after the city hosted the Summer Olympics in 1992: A huge public investment in beautifying the city coincided with a premier spot on the world stage. A new “destination” was born.
Attracted by the city’s museums, restaurants, architecture and Mediterranean coastline, tourists came from all over Europe and around the world. By 2019, Barcelona – a city of about 1.6 million inhabitants – has registered more than 21.3 million overnight stays, more than double that of 2005. Not to mention the more than three million cruise ship passengers that passed through the city’s port that year.
When Airbnb arrived in 2009, Barcelona had no specific rules for private rental to tourists, but interest in the service was clear: by mid-2016 there were some 20,000 listings of both private rooms and complete apartments in the Barcelona section of Airbnb. data from Inside Airbnb, which tracks listings in cities around the world. The hosts in Barcelona operated in those early years of growth in a sort of ‘grey market’: it wasn’t explicitly legal, nor was it clearly prohibited.
But as the number of tourists grew, so did many in Barcelona feel that the city was approaching its visitor capacity. In the summer of 2014, anti-tourism protests erupted in the Barceloneta neighborhood, where locals had become frustrated by the noise and raucous behavior of visitors who had come to party. Anti-tourism graffiti shot, sometimes in popular tourist spots, and in 2017, a group of left-wing activists vandalized an open-top bus full of tourists. Many residents — as well as some in town hall — point the finger at Airbnb.
“Tourism has long been seen as nothing but something positive for the city, but now we are starting to feel all the consequences,” said Mar Santamaría Varas, a Barcelona-based architect and co-founder of 300,000 Km/s, an urban planning office. With regard to tourist accommodation, she added that her analysis revealed three main issues: gentrification, crowding in public areas and the disappearance of convenience stores and other retailers essential to residents.
Airbnb states that renting private rooms has little to no impact on the availability of local housing, as people who rent out private rooms live in the same building. But one study Published last year in the Journal of Urban Economics, Airbnb activity in Barcelona found that rents increased by 7 percent and house prices by 17 percent in the neighborhoods with the highest activity levels on the platform. In the average neighborhood the effects were a 1.9 percent increase in rent and a 4.6 percent increase in house prices.
A new era
The election of Ada Colau as mayor of Barcelona in 2015 marked a turning point in the city’s relationship with tourism and heralded the first real efforts to regulate short-term rentals. Already famous in Spain for her work against evictions, leftist Mrs. Colau took a much tougher stance on tourism than her predecessor. Under her leadership, City Hall has imposed a moratorium on new tourist permits for entire apartment rentals; launched a major crackdown on illegal apartment listings; banned the construction of new hotels in the city center; and introduced district-specific rules to regulate the establishment of souvenir shops and other businesses targeting tourists.