The Costa del Sol has become a haven for vehicles known in Spain as VTCs; these are pre-booked vehicles with drivers, which tourists often use to travel from the airport to their hotels. They are normally dark-coloured top-of-the-range saloon cars, similar to a normal taxi in appearance, and are often used by companies such as Cabify.
In Malaga province VTC licences have tripled in the past four years and there are now 683, according to a report published by the Ministry of Transport last month. The ministry regulates the business, although it is the regional governments who grant the licences. The numbers have been steadily increasing. There were 604 in November, 571 in July last year and only 240 in 2014, and now only Madrid (2,933) and Barcelona (920) have more VTCs than Malaga province.
When these figures are compared with the 2,741 taxis which operate in Malaga, according to the National Institute of Statistics (the ministry's figures only show the 2,583 which are authorised for inter-urban services), it becomes clear that this province is the furthest from complying with the ratio of one VTC for every 30 taxis which is established under Land Transport regulations.
At present there is one VTC for every four taxis in Malaga (1:5 in Madrid, 1:12 in Barcelona and 1:10 nationally). In other words, officially there should only be 86 VTCs or, viewing it from another perspective, there should be 20,490 taxis.
This is not the case in other tourist destinations, because two other factors increase the competition in this region even further. Firstly, in Andalucía another 456 licences (161 of them in Seville) have been granted which enable the drivers to operate anywhere in the region by prior reservation. One example is Cabify, which as well as having a presence in Malaga, also operates in Seville, Barcelona, Madrid and Valencia. The company has about 100 self-employed drivers who move between Malaga and Seville provinces according to demand. At present the majority are in Seville but in the summer they will come to the Costa del Sol to expand the service there, mainly in Malaga city, Marbella and other tourist resorts such as Torremolinos and Benalmádena.
The second factor is that 5,759 VTCs in Spain are authorised to work outside their normal region as long as those journeys do not exceed 20 per cent of their quarterly turnover. It was the arrival of several dozen vehicles from Madrid to take advantage of the Malaga Fair which set off the tense conflict with local taxi drivers last August. Figures from the Unauto-VTC union show that about 30 companies are operating these vehicles in Malaga province, in addition to self-employed drivers who work for tour operators, travel agents or apps like Cabify.
The 1:30 ratio is being ignored in this area because the last socialist government liberalised the sector and withdrew this restriction in 2009. This led to numerous new licences being granted. When the conservative PP came into power in 2013 it tried to stop this by changing the law, but it took two years for the new regulations to come into force and the 1:30 ratio did not take effect until November 2015.
Because so many licences had been granted (1,881 were issued between December 2009 and November 2015), the Junta de Andalucía stopped issuing them, but last November the Supreme Court found in favour of two companies who had been denied 80 licences by the Community of Madrid. The taxi sector now fears that other companies will follow suit and the courts could ratify the 10,000 applications for licences which had been made in Spain before November 2015, of which 1,000 were in Malaga.
Is there enough work for them all? The taxi drivers fear that the future looks “increasingly bleak”, while Unauto-VTC and Cabify say there is enough demand. “For an area and a population as large as Andalucía there are not that many licences. Taxis and VTCs have always coexisted on the Costa del Sol. The difference now is that major companies have come onto the scene and are also doing urban journeys, just as we are allowed to,” says Unauto-VTC's Andalucía representative, Pablo García.
The director of Cabify in Malaga, Marta Campos, says this is a good time for tourism on the Costa del Sol and that “coexistence is possible because the two services can complement each other and we can open new paths of collaboration”.
The president of the Taxi Confederation of the Costa del Sol, José Royón, is less pessimistic than some, insisting that “by providing a quality service and doing things well everything will be fine”. However, he does stress that the rules have to be the same for everybody.
“We are highly regulated, in terms of fares and times of leaving our municipality, while VTCs have total freedom to move around and set their prices according to demand,” he complains. He says there should be more controls of VTCs because they are only supposed to be booked in advance but are often seen picking clients up in the streets or driving near taxi ranks in the hope that someone flags them down.
The government believes it has found a way to prevent that problem by obliging VTC drivers to enter every journey they make on a central register, and the Junta de Andalucía is legally restricting the issue of VTC licences by asking councils for a report about demand for the service in their area. A new regulation will also prevent licences being transferred to anyone else for a period of two years after issue.