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World

Airbnb Closes Its Call Center In Barcelona

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Spain is one of the top tourist destinations in the world, and Barcelona is one of its most-visited cities. Around 20 million people come through the Catalan capital every year, many of whom stay in tourist apartments. Now the coronavirus pandemic has brought the tourism sector to a complete standstill. And as Lucia Benavides reports, apartments previously listed on Airbnb are now being seen on the rental market.

LUCIA BENAVIDES, BYLINE: This is what Barcelona streets used to sound like this time of year.

(CROSSTALK)

BENAVIDES: Filled with noise and life and tourists - but not this year. Spain has been one of the countries hardest hit by the coronavirus pandemic. Foreign visitors aren't coming, and tourist apartments remain empty.

ANAHI ARADAS: It has been a complete paralysis.

BENAVIDES: Anahi Aradas is a journalist who supplements her income by renting a beachfront apartment just outside Barcelona. In previous years, she made an average of $6,500 a month during the high season. But two months ago, the cancellations began. Now her apartment will be empty for the summer, and she doesn't expect things to pick up for a while.

ARADAS: As well I've seen there must be another outbreak, maybe in October, so I'm looking for someone to stay maybe 11 months or something like that.

BENAVIDES: Aradas still hopes she'll be able to rent to international tourists next year. Thousands of tourist apartments across Spain are now on the local market and at much lower prices. But community activist Daniel Pardo says this won't change the rental market in the long term.

DANIEL PARDO: (Speaking Spanish).

BENAVIDES: "It's not going to bring back residents who were pushed out of their neighborhoods," he says. While the tourism industry has contributed millions of dollars to Barcelona's economy and generated thousands of jobs, it has also increased the cost of living and made many neighborhoods unaffordable for local residents. Carlos Delclos of the Autonomous University of Barcelona says locals aren't going to benefit just yet. Most tourist apartments are only being rented out for a few months at a time, which makes them useless for most people.

CARLOS DELCLOS: They're not going to go straight into the rental market, offering three-year contracts, which is the minimum for main residents; they're going to try to do short-term rentals, which have to be less than a year.

BENAVIDES: While there are many small players in the tourism sector, Delclos says a majority of Airbnb listings are owned by investment companies or people who own multiple properties.

DELCLOS: In the short term, panicky small property holders might be tempted to sell, whereas the ones who have more assets and larger pots of money can just sit there and kick back and wait.

BENAVIDES: But Delclos says we could eventually see more tourist apartments switch to local rentals if the pandemic continues to depress tourism in Spain.

For NPR News, I'm Lucia Benavides in Moya, Spain.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.