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Venice and Florence demand a curb on Airbnb

Tourists sprawled over sidewalks, garbage piled up in the streets, and thousands-strong lines to enter museums. Overtourism feels a long time ago now, but the after effects are still being felt in Italian cities, where locals have been squeezed out by Airbnbs, businesses have been drowned out by souvenir shops, and whole economies have been hijacked by tourism, and then hung out to dry.

But while destinations flex their marketing budgets for post-pandemic trips, and countries and continents start to put together vaccine passport plans, two of Europe’s cities that were hardest hit by overtourism have put together a manifesto for the tourism of the future.

Florence and Venice’s joint “Decalogo” — literally a list of Ten Commandments — has been sent to the Italian government. It outlines 10 things the authorities of the two cities want to see happen as thoughts turn towards the return of travel.

And as part of that, they want to limit Airbnb.

“The short-term rental phenomenon needs to be better managed with clearer rules nationally,” says the document, stating that some people “hide a business behind a rental” without being subject to the same regulations as the hospitality profession. In addition, rentals pay considerably less tax than B&Bs and hotels — 21% compared to 60% — meaning they can happily undercut registered businesses.

“The consequence is that too often an unskilled offering weakens the country’s overall offering,” they state, adding that short-term rentals are “unfair competition” with hotels and can “generate problems in the area,” when they’re apartments within a residential block.

Rentals “encourage the emptying out of historical centers because of the surge in costs of renting over medium- and long-term periods.

“This hollowing out, perhaps not so visible until now, and maybe underestimated, is now clear to everyone — especially in cities such as Florence and Venice,” the report adds.

A 90-day limit for Airbnbs

Urging the government to “take a hold of the situation in a serious, forward-looking way,” they suggest classifying all rentals of under 30 days as for tourism purposes, and imposing a limit of two such rentals on owners per city, and a 90-day annual limit for rentals.

Many properties on Airbnb are owned by property investors who buy up handfuls of apartments to let in Italy’s cities of art. They are often the cheapest, raising prices and squeezing locals out of the market.

Those who own more than two properties, or rent them for more than 90 days, should register as a business, suggest the mayors — at which point they would be subject to that tax regime which is three times more punitive.

The cities are following in the footsteps of other overtouristed destinations including Paris, which allows people to rent out their primary residences for just 120 days a year; and Barcelona, which is mulling over a ban on short-term rentals.

What the locals think

Residents seemed positive at the proposals, though some had reservations.

Veronica Grechi, owner of Velona’s Jungle B&B on the outskirts of Florence’s city center, is fully behind the mayors’ proposals. “This type of tourism has much less positive impact than where you stay in official places,” she said.

“If you stay in a hotel or B&B like mine — which is still in an apartment — you give money to a place that offers jobs and has an impact on the economy of the area. It’s very different.”

She continued: “It’s not right seeing the city center completely gutted of residents as became clear in the pandemic. Florentines live in the suburbs; in the center it’s almost empty. And that’s not nice for tourists to see, either.

“In some places, you don’t even meet the host — you punch in a code and get the keys. It’s the absolute opposite to what Airbnb says it’s about, and it’s not tourism — it’s property speculation.”

Venetians agreed, though were more hesitant.

“It’s more than time for Italy to regulate short-time rentals and the proposed new norms are a step in the right direction,” said Valeria Duflot, co-founder of Venezia Autentica, a social enterprise in Venice.

“In order to ensure a positive impact of such regulation it would be important to incentivize long-term rentals, enforce the new rules in a visible way, and use the income coming from rental taxes for the benefit of the local community.” She cited an affordable housing plan as one such use.

But she warned that the hotel sector’s “constant growth” in Venice should also be capped, or the proposals would risk being seen as “an advantage for stakeholders with deep pockets and a loss for residents who are just looking to make an extra few bucks to be able to stay in their city.”

Giulia Rossi of Essere a Venezia, a real estate agent in the city, also had mixed feelings.

“It’s really interesting that for the first time these proposals differentiate Italy’s art cities from the rest of the country,” she said. “Until now, we’ve only ever talked about regulation at a national level, which doesn’t make sense because what could be brilliant for Venice would be useless in other places. So it’s clever to treat these cities differently.”

Although Rossi has never facilitated tourist rentals “on principle — seeing how they were taking root I realized how damaging they’d be for the historic center,” and is against them in general, she argued that “a 360-degree approach on the entire hospitality industry” is needed.

“Otherwise you end up acting in the interest of large hotels, which transform entire buildings which were residential into hospitality blocks.”

“It’s right to regulate tourist rentals but we have to remember there are people who’ve bought properties and restored them — restoration works that brought a load of money to the city — on the assumption that they’d be able to earn from it. And you can’t just change things from one minute to the next when people have made an investment.

“Until 10 years ago there were so many derelict apartments — they were in pitiful condition. It was too onerous to restore them because the cost of maintenance in Venice was too high.”

In reaction to the mayors’ proposals, a spokesperson for Airbnb told CNN:

“Travel is changing — in the last quarter of 2020, more guests stayed in Sicily than in Florence and Venice combined — and we look forward to working with cities to help local economies bounce back.

“Leaders in Florence and Venice have made clear that they support regular people sharing their homes and we are eager to work together on a way forward that supports families and communities.”

Those other commandments

Other initiatives include the need to “preserve the character and the historical and cultural fabric of the cities” by assigning new store openings only for those selling high-quality artworks and local products, and and introducing rules on shopfronts to improve the street environment.

They also suggest regulating tour guides and banning the “free tour” phenomenon, where often unregulated guides work for tips, as well as introducing harsher punishments for defacing buildings and further developing smart control rooms to monitor the flow of tourists.

Public transport ticket prices need to rise to make up for the lack of tourist income during the pandemic, they add.

But it’s not all punitive — they also want to see more ecologically friendly transport.

Calling the cities “two global symbols of beauty”, Florence mayor Dario Nardella said in a statement that Florence and Venice were “signing a pact” to “relaunch the image and attraction of Italy.”

“International tourism in Italy will only get going if the cities of art get going,” he added.

“As soon as the borders reopen, the country must be ready.”

Venice mayor Luigi Brugnaro said that the document was a chance to put forwards “ideas from an organizational perspective of the cities, which we’ve been struggling to get people to listen to for too long.”

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