It seems unstoppable. Malaga and Marbella now officially have more beds available in privately-rented tourist apartments than in hotels. In a city like Malaga with its recent tourism explosion focused on urban and cultural visits, the figures might seem logical. In Marbella, however, with half a century of tradition as a hotel resort, these same figures should prompt some reflection and even alarm bells.
The profusion of holiday apartments rented thanks to internet tools is a relatively new phenomenon. However, as we scratch the surface of the debate about its consequences, it’s as if we had gone back to the discussions of a decade ago. Then, though, the dilemma wasn’t over hotels and apartments but over conventional tourism versus residential tourism. As the real estate bubble was still inflating, that was a debate that tended to end in a question: Why do they call it tourism when what they’re doing is selling houses?
Now, with the tourist apartment issue there is one thing that makes it similar to the previous debate. It’s true that in advanced societies new travel habits have appeared as well as new ways of marketing all kinds of products, many of them still sheltered by a lack of legislation due to the newness of the concept. But it’s also true that many of the properties now up for rent to tourists are a product of that real estate bubble, that tourism pressure is forcing some long-term residents out of their urban neighbourhoods and that the tourism model based on properties rented on the internet is barely compatible with the tourism of hotels with top quality facilities. You can’t aspire to reach one objective while aiming for the opposite at the same time.
It’s also worth remembering that the current apparently endless demand for tourist accommodation is the product of a situation of conflict in the Mediterranean that won’t last forever, and that a model based on quantity and not quality provides a feast for today, but famine tomorrow.
Only the naïve and the unrepentant fanatics can trust that the invisible hand of the market will find the answer by itself for a new and complex situation that could determine the future of our strategic industry. We mustn’t forget that the worst thing about bubbles is that they end up bursting, and you never know how far the fallout will reach.