The banner hung from a third-floor balcony, unfurling itself almost all the way down to the cobbles of the square. Barcelona no està en venda, it read, in large hand-painted letters: the city is not for sale. It wasn’t the first such slogan we’d seen in only an hour or so strolling around the narrow, winding streets of Barcelona’s beautiful old quarter last week, and naturally our curiosity was piqued. Something to do with gentrification, or developers maybe? Well, partly. But, disconcertingly, it turned out to have quite a lot to do with people like us, and possibly you too.
Or to be more precise, with the multibillion-pound global phenomenon that is Airbnb. As it happens, I’m boringly old school enough to have stayed in a hotel this time, but the airport bus was full of young families chattering about picking up their flat keys via the site that is famous for letting people rent their houses out to strangers. And Barcelona is far from the only place in which Airbnb is accused of turning summer sour.
Amsterdam is heavily restricting short-term lets by residents after street protests against the swamping of the city by tourists last year. It’s the same story from Paris to Berlin, Venice to Lisbon. Even in Cornwall, at the height of this summer’s heatwave, tourist chiefs took the unusual step of asking holidaymakers to avoid some popular beaches after coastal roads became gridlocked, leaving locals struggling to get on with their daily lives. People in Cornwall are more than used to being overrun in August, but lately something seems to be upsetting the eternally delicate balance between grockle and local, and chief suspect seems to be an unplanned, somewhat unpredictable explosion in Airbnb lets on top of the longstanding hotel and holiday cottage trade.