By Sophie Davies
BARCELONA - The residents of Eixample, an elegant, tree-lined district in central Barcelona, are getting used to a new sound: the rattle of suitcases being dragged along paving stones.
Until a few years ago, this neighbourhood – named after the Catalan word for 'extension' because it was built in the 19th century as the Spanish city outgrew its medieval borders – was not a popular part of the city for tourists to stay in.
Today, about one third of the properties surrounding University Square, on the border of the district, are rented out on the home-sharing platform Airbnb Inc, according to DataHippo, a Spanish aggregator of rental data.
Each year, about 30 million tourists visit Barcelona, a city with a population of 1.6 million, according to official statistics.
Eixample's residents, like those in many other parts of Barcelona, are not happy. They say tourism is leading to overcrowding, destroying the city's character and pushing rents so high that many locals can no longer afford to live there.
Carmen Rios, who works in healthcare technology, has lived in Barcelona for nearly 20 years and moved out of the city centre a few years ago to get away from the crowds of tourists.
"I don't enjoy the city centre anymore and wouldn't live there ever again ... (the authorities) have not made it pleasant for Barcelona's residents," she lamented.
Now a new sustainable home-sharing platform wants to make tourism an asset to neighbourhoods where residents feel they are being squeezed out to make space for visitors.
Fairbnb, which is due to launch this summer in five European cities, promises to give 50% of its revenues to support local community projects and help "counter the negative effects of tourism", according to its website.
When guests reserve accommodation through the home-sharing platform, they can choose which of the projects registered with the site they want to support, said Jonathan Reyes, Fairbnb's co-founder for Barcelona and Valencia.
Those projects could be anything from social housing for residents to community gardens, he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation by phone.
The company will also apply a "One Host, One Home" rule, limiting each host to one listing in an effort to restrict the number of holiday rentals in each city, so that locals have more chance to find affordable homes to live in.
"We really want to give the sovereignty of tourism back to local communities," Reyes said.
He explained his company's philosophy is that tourism in itself is not bad, but it needs to be better managed.
"We cannot just try to stop or to destroy this tourism model," he stressed. "To change things, we need to build a real alternative."
'NOT CREATED FOR TOURISM'
Spain's second-largest city is one of more than 100 places around the world identified as being in a state of overtourism by a report for the European Parliament published last year.
The problem is especially stark in cities like Copenhagen and Lucerne, where many visitors are concentrated in a relatively small geographical area, the report said.
"As residents make use of the same area, this creates the potential for overcrowding, congestion, tensions, and other issues associated with overtourism," it said.
Macia Blazquez, a geography professor at the University of the Balearic Islands, said certain cities simply were not designed for receiving large numbers of visitors.
"Barcelona is a city that wasn't created for tourism, unlike tourist towns that have just one purpose," Blazquez said, pointing to the English seaside resort of Blackpool as an example.
"In multifunctional cities where people actually live, there are more conflicts," he said.
They go from being cities visited by tourists to "touristy cities", he said, which puts pressure on house prices and causes rents to rise for residents.
Average rental prices in Barcelona have risen by 30% in the last five years, according to City Hall statistics.
In Spain, low-income immigrants from Sub-Saharan Africa, Latin America and North Africa are particularly affected, with many only able to afford the rent by co-habiting with several other people in small apartments, Blazquez added.
Since it was founded as a cooperative in 2016, Fairbnb has grown to include nine co-members from different European cities - such as Barcelona, Madrid, Amsterdam, Bologna, and Venice – who felt frustrated by tourist overcrowding.
A spokeswoman for Barcelona City Hall said the local government "welcomed" the emergence of the company and its focus on community development.
"It is desirable for all platforms to have this predisposition and sense of responsibility," she said in emailed comments.
Airbnb, which also limits the number of homes each host can list in certain cities, said it, too, puts community first.
The company is "built on the principles of making communities stronger, empowering citizens and spreading tourism benefits beyond hotels and tourist hotspots to local families and businesses," Airbnb spokesman Simon Letouze told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
Fairbnb may struggle to compete with the bigger, more established company backed by private capital with strong lobbying power, said Agustin Cocola-Gant, a research fellow in urban studies at the University of Lisbon.
"Some people are really aware of the importance of ethical consumption, but in general what consumers want is a cheap product – and Airbnb provides cheap accommodation," he said.
HELP OR HARM?
Those concerns have not put off the more than 3,200 people who have already pre-registered as hosts on the site, including in cities where Fairbnb has not launched yet, according to co-founder Reyes.
"In some countries we are overwhelmed because we have received so many emails from people wanting to be involved," he said.
But Blazquez, the geography professor, warned that Fairbnb could end up aggravating the problem it wants to solve, by giving tourists yet another reason to visit the world's already overcrowded cities.
"There's always a new tourism 'segment'– here in the Balearic Islands, for instance, we have mass tourism, beach tourism ... day trippers, gastronomic tourism, responsible tourism," he said.
"More and more things are being introduced."