To Contain Tourism, One Spanish City Strikes a Ban, on Airbnb

The port of Palma de Mallorca, Spain. It will become the first Spanish city to ban the short-term rental of apartments sites like Airbnb.

PALMA, Majorca — In summers, Majorca and its sister islands off the eastern coast of Spain were once a discreet destination for the cultured, famous and well-heeled. In the 19th century, the composer Frédéric Chopin and his partner, the writer George Sand, were among those who sought its Mediterranean climate.

Celebrities still come, but in more recent years, bargain airlines and package tours have added to the mix, with Britons and others looking for cheap and drunken holidays.

It has gotten to the point where some hotels in the port of Magaluf have encased their balconies in glass panels to prevent inebriated clients from jumping off. Usually they land in swimming pools, sometimes not. In early June, a 20-year-old tourist became the second person to fall to his death this year.

Then there is Palma, the island’s quieter, tonier capital about a half-hour drive along the coast, where the mayor is erecting his own kind of barrier to tourists: In July, it will become the first Spanish city to ban the short-term rental of apartments through Airbnb and other home-sharing websites.

“We want Palma to remain livable for its inhabitants,” Antoni Noguera, the mayor, said in an interview. “We believe that we are setting a trend, because there are many cities in Europe that have the same problem.”

In fact, Airbnb and others have already been facing a backlash. Amsterdam and Paris are among the European cities that decided to limit the number of days people can rent their apartments. Different restrictions have come into force across North America, from Vancouver to New York.

But Mr. Noguera may be right to think that his city is taking the clampdown a step further. Under Palma’s new rules, only owners of detached townhouses will be allowed to rent to tourists. Anybody offering short-term rental in an apartment building risks a fine of as much as 40,000 euros.

The mayor and other critics of Airbnb insist they want to contain rather than dampen tourism. The sector, after all, represents about 40 percent of Majorca’s gross domestic product.

But they view short-term rentals as a frontal attack on the social fabric of their city, reducing the housing supply and making Palma unaffordable for its 440,000 residents. Last year, prices in Palma’s secondary housing market rose at the fastest pace among Spanish cities, according to some studies.

Fed-up residents have hung posters from their balconies showing a woman with a shopping trolley using a walking stick to drive away tourists with their selfie sticks and carry-on luggage. “The city is for whoever lives in it, not whoever visits it,” it reads.

Palma’s ban was decided under a broader regional law that allowed the different local authorities of the Balearic Islands, which also include Ibiza and Menorca, to set their own rules for short-term renting.

Joan Miralles, the president of Habtur, an association that represents homeowners who rent to tourists, said local politicians have made Airbnb the scapegoat for their failure to control the tourism boom and to build more affordable housing.

Instead, he said, politicians bowed to pressure from the hotel lobby, on an island that is home to four of Spain’s five largest international hotel operators.

“Banning Airbnb will do nothing to solve our housing crisis, but it will stop the democratization of a tourism sector that has been controlled by a few hotel oligarchs,” Mr. Miralles said.

Palma was founded as a Roman settlement and then fortified during three centuries of Arab rule. Only part of its medieval walls remain, but Palma is otherwise undergoing a major face-lift, like Lisbon and many other cities that have attracted more tourists and foreign investors.

Mr. Miralles showed off a section of Palma that has a few abandoned and dilapidated buildings, but mostly renovated ones that could serve as tourism apartments. Within the city, 19 hotels have opened since 2011, many of them boutique establishments in converted palaces.

Palma’s mayor predicted that Airbnb’s removal would free up apartments for residents. But for now, rental prices are climbing, with little evidence that landlords want long-term tenants rather than tourists.

Cristina Morey, who owns an apartment overlooking Palma’s seafront avenue, plans to sell her unit because she fears a tenant could turn into a squatter.

In four years of renting on Airbnb, Ms. Morey said, nobody complained about her guests: “It’s insulting and wrong to say that all Airbnb tourists are loud and disorderly.”

Some residents also worry that their politicians will stop their efforts to control tourism after tackling Airbnb, when other matters also stifle life for residents, like the influx of cruise ships and rental cars.

“Anybody concerned about tourism saturation should start by dealing with the crazy summer traffic on our roads,” said Jaime Bonnín, a taxi driver.

Where both critics and supporters of Airbnb find common ground is in questioning how the ban will be enforced.

“If there is a new law but then no inspection and control, that’s just creating another big problem,” said María Frontera, the president of the island’s hotel federation.

Mr. Miralles, on the other hand, warns that banning Airbnb risks driving more of the island’s tourism revenues into the underground economy, by cutting off an electronic payment system that makes it easy to trace transactions on Airbnb and other platforms.

In fact, Airbnb is already appealing a fine of 300,000 euros it received in February from the regional government after the authorities identified advertising for unregistered homes on its website.

Some of Palma’s residents believe their city government is only adding to the legal confusion surrounding the growth of Airbnb and other online businesses.

“Palma has come up with a very bad rule that will surely get knocked out either in Madrid or Brussels,” said Imma Molas, who rents a room in her Palma apartment to tourists. She argued that the ban contravenes Spanish rental laws as well as the free-market legislation of the European Union.

But for Manel Domènech, who heads one of the neighborhood associations that pushed for the ban, residents should have the right to live without suffering the excesses of tourism.

“It’s fine to have your neighbor celebrate his birthday once a year, but not to have a weekly party above your head,” said Mr. Domènech, who is a retired schoolteacher.

While some property owners might depend on renting to tourists, he said, others like him face “a fall in the value of our apartment once people work out what kind of unwanted neighbors come with it.”

As Palma and other cities struggle to adjust to the new forms of mass tourism, Carlos García-Delgado, a local architect, draws an analogy with the way British cities dealt with the onset of the Industrial Revolution.

Factories were initially allowed inside the cities, but later forced to relocate to the outskirts once their number and pollution made city life unbearable.

“Decades ago, we allowed mass tourism to keep us away from our own beaches during the summer,” he said. “So we can’t now allow it to kick us out of our last bastion, which is our city.”

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