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Uber, Airbnb Under Attack In Spain As Old And New Economies Clash

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Uber, Airbnb Under Attack In Spain As Old And New Economies Clash

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Uber, Airbnb Under Attack In Spain As Old And New Economies Clash

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RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

Online travel has been changing. More and more people are booking a charm accommodations through Airbnb, the site where residents rent out rooms to travelers, or they're using carpooling apps to get around while on vacation. It's been dubbed the sharing or share economy, and it can be a money saver in areas hard hit by economic crisis like southern Europe. But in sunny Spain this summer, authorities are cracking down. Lauren Frayer reports.

LAUREN FRAYER, BYLINE: I've arrived in Barcelona at the height of the summertime tourist season, and I'm armed with the trendy tools of this share economy. I've rented a room in someone's house through the website Airbnb, and I've booked a ride there through the Smartphone app Uber. And here comes my driver.

SHIRAZ JERAL: (Spanish spoken).

FRAYER: Shiraz Jeral is 25, born in Pakistan. His father moved the family to Barcelona during the construction boom. But then he lost his job, so Shiraz is now supporting the family, making up to $125 a day as a private taxi driver, linking up with passengers through Uber.

JERAL: (Spanish spoken).

FRAYER: Every morning at 6 a.m., I pick up tourists at the airport. It's great, they pay by credit card through their smart phones and Uber pays me at the end of the month, he says. But the other taxi drivers, they get really mad.

Taxi drivers across Europe have gone on strike this summer to protest Uber. They say it undercuts their business and want it outlawed. A popular car-sharing company in Spain, Bluemove, has had tires slashed in an apparent attack on the sharing economy.

JERAL: (Spanish spoken).

FRAYER: He says the police recently harassed and fined him. He's bringing the ticket to Uber's office. Taxi unions say ride-sharing is unsafe. But Vincent Rosso, the Spain director of another ride-share website in Europe, called Blablacar, says it's just the opposite.

VINCENT ROSSO: Now, if you jump into a cab, you don't know the driver. But in our case, people that jump into a car know in advance who is going to be in the car - their age, their preferences when they travel - they can check the biography.

FRAYER: Spain is the biggest destination for European tourists - the most visible place for this clash of old and new economies - a test case for how other countries might regulate these new tools. My Uber driver Shiraz drops me at my Airbnb place and heads off to get another fair.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOOR OPENING)

FRAYER: Oh, this is beautiful.

ESPERANZA CASAS: Yeah, thank you. There isn't all that much light.

FRAYER: My Airbnb host is Esperanza Casas. She works long hours at a marketing company for about a thousand dollars a month. She'd never afford rent without her Airbnb income.

CASAS: I need it, completely. I mean, it's the only way we have to live life decently. We have no other ways.

FRAYER: But Spain's powerful hotel lobby is angry. And local authorities have just slapped Airbnb with a $40,000 fine for failing to list rentals with the tourism board. The Airbnb website could be blocked in Barcelona. Esperanza is nervous.

CASAS: I'm a bit scared. The problem is that if they really don't allow this anymore, me, I mean, and millions of people couldn't afford the rent. So I think it will mess up even more the economy.

FRAYER: Patrick Torrent, of the Catalan Tourism Board, says he has concerns about Airbnb, but he's not in the pocket of the hotel lobby.

PATRICK TORRENT: Our position in this case is not thinking about hotels. It's thinking about consumer rights. It's thinking about quality. It's thinking about the security of our destination.

FRAYER: Barcelona is one of Airbnb's top destinations and the company is appealing the fines, says David Hantman, Airbnb's public policy director.

DAVID HANTMAN: I think it's a real shame, where you have a government that's so aggressive. You know, there are ways of protecting neighborhoods and protecting citizens and putting some restrictions on this activity that make sense because people are still going to travel. The key is to figure out how to make sense of this amazing activity, instead of just trying to enforce old rules that were designed for really a different time.

FRAYER: Airbnb and other companies are in talks with the Spanish government. Among the compromises, a new rule in Madrid that requires a five day minimum for Airbnb. Hotels get the short one to two day visits. David Cordova's a government relations expert at Madrid's IE Business School, who's been following this clash of new and old economies.

DAVID CORDOVA: (Spanish spoken).

FRAYER: In a few short years, the growth of these platforms like Airbnb and Uber has been exponential, but it's also been disruptive, he says. Traditional vendors weren't prepared for it and they've reacted harshly. The trick is to prevent that from paralyzing this new share economy. Among those eager to see what happens is Rosa Maria Sanchez, a 60-year-old Spanish widow I met in Barcelona.

ROSA MARIA SANCHEZ: Es mi trabajo principal, porque bueno, le empresa…

FRAYER: Hosting Airbnb guests is Rosa Maria's main source of income since her husband died and she lost her admin job. And now, she says, she has friends around the world.

SANCHEZ: (Spanish spoken).

FRAYER: From Tasmania, Taiwan, Korea, she says. Right now my guests are from Montréal. Oh, and there were those two sisters from Azerbaijan, we exchange Christmas cards now, she says. The test for Spain is to harness that enthusiasm for the new share economy and work out what role hotels and taxis can still play. For NPR News, I'm Lauren Frayer in Barcelona.

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