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Barcelona’s city government has opened nearly 6,000 disciplinary cases against illegal tourist apartments in the past 16 months — signs of a continuing conflict that pits the city’s booming tourism industry against local regulators and many residents.

Of these cases, approximately one-third of apartments have been found to operate without a license and only 628 have responded to government demands, according to data released in early July.

Tourist apartments have become one of the most popular lodging options for visitors in Barcelona, but the city’s early attempts at regulation did not meet the challenge given how ubiquitous rentals became and their residual impact on city life.

Tourist apartments in Barcelona operate on a license system. Under the leadership of Marian Muro, former director general of Cataluña Tourism, the first regional regulations impacting tourist apartments were put in place in 2012.

“We calculated that there were approximately 500,000 tourist apartments throughout Cataluña that were not regulated. We didn’t know their characteristics, if they had the right requirements for tourists so we created a regulation and called homes with a touristic use HUT. There were tourist apartments and we established minimum requirements,” Muro explains in Skift’s new documentary Barcelona and the Trials of 21st Century Tourism.

“It was a very controversial regulation because the other accommodation sectors did not perceive it well, but it allowed us to regularize 250,000 places in Cataluña. It was something that had not happened anywhere else. We created a regulation and were then very strict in its application.”

In the following years, the Barcelona government passed moratoriums to first stop licenses in the Old Town then throughout the city. Mayor Ada Colau then went one step further, halting licenses for all tourism accommodation development, hotel licenses and tourism businesses.

The demand for tourist apartments, with swelling arrival numbers coupled with zero inventory development, continued to grow.

There are only 9,606 tourist apartment licenses in Barcelona, but Mayor Colau estimates there are another 6,000 apartments dedicated to this same purpose without any permits. Other estimates claim there are 50,000 beds in legal apartments and another 50,000 in illegal ones — more than the 75,000 hotel beds available.

Airbnb backed up that popularity when it released data that says 1.24 million visitors used Airbnb in Barcelona in 2016 — a 40 percent increase over 2015.

The central issue in this conflict between Airbnb and the government rests on the fact that there is no legal framework for what Airbnb claims is the majority of these unlicensed apartments — regular people who occasionally rent a room or their apartment. Airbnb officials believe that these cases should be categorized separately from the commercial tourist apartments license that have been the crux of discussions.

In a surprising shift signaling a more collaborative, pragmatic approach, Barcelona’s deputy mayor of urbanism Janet Sanz, highlighted the difference between residents occasionally renting their space and tourist apartments set up solely for commercial uses at a conference in February 2017.

“There is no regulation in this moment. It’s not illegal or legal. It’s a-legal. We’re trying to develop a specific normative so that the activity develops correctly. In this case, there is not an apartment substitution because the owner is still living there,” said Sanz.

She said that someone renting out a room infrequently is “not the problem because that apartment is still giving service to a family. The problem is the touristic apartments bought by big promoters exclusively for touristic use.”

Last month, however, the Barcelona City Council addressed Airbnb as “the only great tourist accommodation platform that continues to operate in the city outside of legality,” signaling continued tensions between public and private stakeholders.

We explore this relationship between Airbnb, the hotel industry, and local life in Skift’s inaugural Skift Lens documentary, “Barcelona and the Trials of 21st Century Tourism.” Watch it here.

A Brief Timeline of Tourist Apartment Regulations

2011: Catalan Parliament creates new licenses for tourist housing (HUT) throughout Cataluña.

2011: Barcelona City Hall stops all new HUT licenses throughout Old Town.

2012: Catalan Parliament clarifies HUT licenses, only regulating commercial operators of tourist housing.

2014: Barcelona City Hall stops all new HUT licenses throughout the city.

2015: Barcelona City Hall stops all tourism accommodation development and hotel licenses.

2015 – 2016: Catalan Parliament drafts tourism decree recognizing home sharing, but does not distinguish between professional and non-professional apartment rentals.

2016: Barcelona City Hall stops licenses for all tourist businesses.

2017: Barcelona City Hall recognizes non-professional home sharing as “a-legal,” or unregulated.

Watch Barcelona and the Trials of 21st Century Tourism

Photo Credit: A photo on Airbnb's website promoting its Experiences in Barcelona. Airbnb