By Jaime Jover (@JaimeJover)
Few people that had heard about Airbnb in southern Europe 10 years ago. The San Francisco-based holiday rentals company had just started its expansion in the continent. During the first years of the 2010s, short-term leases’ growth was still slow in a context where the World –particularly southern European economies– struggled to recover from the 2008 financial crisis. However, the Airbnb business began to accelerate in larger urban areas by 2014, increasing exponentially in the following years. Rooms and, especially, single houses and apartments skyrocketed across southern Europe reaching a peak in 2019, right before the COVID-19 crisis broke out. European capitals such as Barcelona, Madrid, Milano, Lisbon, or Rome had listed up to 20,000 listings by then (more than 25,000 in the case of the Italian capital). The situation was worse in southern European second-tier cities, particularly those branding themselves as cultural tourism destinations. Athens, Florence, Porto, Seville, or Valencia accumulated between 8,000 and 12,000 listings before the pandemic (data form InsideAirbnb). Even nowadays, with international tourism arrivals at the lowest level in decades, there are still thousands of short-term rentals available in these destinations. In some of them, the Airbnb accommodation offer surpassed that of hotels. Numbers are not the only issue, but also concentration. Airbnb listings have colonized central locations with a vivid cultural and leisure offer appealing to visitors as well as surrounding neighbourhoods, which had never been touristic before.
According to InsideAirbnb data, between 75% and 85% of the Airbnb offer in cities are single properties, i.e., a good part of housing has lost is residential use to host commercial activities permanently. Short-term rentals are no longer an alternative activity, the one you do when you go abroad on holidays and decide to rent your place to visitors for a few weeks. Rather, it has become business as usual. Thousands of housing units have been deprived of the market –usually long-term leases–, turning into tourism. Higher revenues are usually behind this trend, which has alternatively attracted investors of all sizes and nationalities. In southern European cities, the majority of Airbnb hosts are no longer people with second-homes, but individual and institutional buy-to-let investors, from a couple of apartments to entire buildings. Intermediaries have also sprung up: short-term rental management agencies have given birth to a business that is closer to a horizontal hotel than to a peer-to-peer activity. The sharing economy is not about sharing anymore (if it ever were).
The housing shortage has had different consequences. In the long-term rental market, there are fewer options, and usually more expensive. Lower-income residents, families who have traditionally rented in the central locations and surroundings neighbourhoods have been forced to move out. In Portugal and Spain, the concept of ‘invisible evictions’ has risen to define the foreclosure of (usually long-term) tenants because the landlord would not renovate a lease, or he would but increasing the price abusively, knowing their tenants could never afford it. Even for those who own an apartment, sharing their building’s common spaces with unknown people have caused distressed, and decided to leave to other neighbourhoods. Impacts are also noted daily in the neighbourhood’s public spaces, with noise, dirtiness, and overcrowding being the most common disruptions. Tourism congestion in streets and squares results in a reduction of meeting places and translates into the loss of community and social bonds. Culture facilities or monuments commonly suffer from saturation, modifying how locals spend their free time. Excluding neighbours from their neighbourhood is also seen in retail habits and the transformation of shops, as many cater now almost exclusively to tourists. One would think about business opportunities and employment if it were not for tourism being the sector that concentrates the lowest wages and precarious labour conditions in southern Europe. Tourism, and especially Airbnb, has largely disrupted urban living in many cities across the Mediterranean; concepts such as touristification or overtourism have emerged to explain the nature of these rapid transformations.
Under such circumstances, governments’ response has been generally slow and insufficient to cope with the new challenges tourism is bringing over cities. In Italy and Portugal, national governments have passed legislation to assimilate short-term leases to tourism accommodation standards and taxation, by which there is a public compulsory registration, although leaving all the pressure of specific measures to municipalities. On the one hand, for instance, Milano or Torino have done nothing about it despite existing evidence of tourism-related problems. On the other hand, Venice decided not to control short-term rentals but visitors in general and started charging from 3 to 10 euros to tourists entering the city. In Portugal, registration entails symbolizing in the street the condition of a house or building as a short-term rental, which allows the public to identify them. Lisbon and Porto have also zoned central areas where short-term rentals are not allowed. However, criteria are lax, and its enforcement has been delayed. Greece has passed a similar bill with a peculiarity: short-term rentals must be listed only when their activity surpasses 90 days a year, following the steps of Amsterdam or Vienna. In Spain, government action varies depending on the regions, but almost all of them have also agreed to have public compulsory registration. In cities, Barcelona and San Sebastián have both zoned central locations as saturated, meaning it is not only impossible to open a new short-term rental or other accommodation business, but there is the need to decrease. Madrid has also zoned areas; however, spatial criteria are less restrictive, focusing on accommodation: only short-term rentals to street access are allowed. All these measures have been taken to court on the grounds of limiting the right to property or the municipalities not having the capacity to regulate tourist activities, and rules are expected in the following months.
Most of the measures taken by municipalities are the result of social mobilization. Right-to-housing movements such as Habita or La PAH in Portugal and Spain respectively have joined neighbourhood associations, tenants’ unions, or radical trade unions to denounce the situation. These alliances and coalitions have sprung up across the Mediterranean, alternatively coming together in the SET net: the Southern Europe facing Touristification network. At local as well as transnational scales, efforts have focused on analysing each situation, sharing experiences, and agreeing on discourses aiming at the tourist model rather than tourism because visitors are the last to blame: large hospitality corporations, airlines, tourists’ agencies, or governments must be held responsible. Therefore, proposals have generally had two lines of action: institutional- and activist-related. First, institutional activities have consisted of writing reports (by activist themselves or in collaboration with academics) with zoning, housing-related, or tourism-degrowth proposals, engaging in media conversation with appearances on press or radio stations, and having meetings with city officials, especially where there are (or have been) left-wing governments (Barcelona, Madrid or Rome). However, not all SET net members have followed this collaboration strategy. Second, activist-related activities have been common, especially raise-awareness campaigns and direct actions. The former includes handing out leaflets to residents and tourists or workshops with other social actors, while the latter encompasses demonstrations and satirical performances. Among these, for example, we could highlight counter-tourist routes (taking pictures of tourists visiting not touristic neighbourhoods) or the burial of the neighbour (carrying a coffin to make visible the exile of residents, and how it means neighbourhoods are dying).
Despite public outcry and mobilization, and the Covid-19 crisis, states and cities have continued to foster tourism-oriented strategies to attract visitors and real estate capital. Instead of analysing the urban economic structure or recognizing the tourism dependency and its volatile character in the pandemic context, governments across southern Europe insist on deploying tourism policies to reactivate local economies. State and local resources are still flowing to tax exemptions to building construction or renovation for tourism purposes or to international city-marketing campaigns, while public discourses shield on austerity to deny public housing projects or the implementation of rent controls –grassroots organization for such policies come, by the way, because of tourism-driven increasing pressure in housing markets in central locations–. Ruling-classes’ incapacity to imagine another urban context in southern Europe is outstanding. That is why we need to keep organizing and fighting against the monopoly of tourism economies that increase social and spatial inequalities between wealthy individuals and the working classes.
Jaime Jover is a Post-Doctoral Fellow at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York (CUNY), studying social geography, with specializations in critical theory, historic preservation, and urban tourism.
Cover photo credit: Jaime Jover
18 November 2021