Is taxing Airbnb prejudicial to French tourism?

airbnbAt first glance, one might think taxing an activity like individual rentals can only have negative effects on the entire industry. The aim of the following lines is to demonstrate that the exact opposite can be true.

In 2015, France will maintain its title of world champion of tourism. By welcoming 83.8 million foreign tourists in 2014, the Hexagon remains the most visited country in the world. In the first quarter of 2015, the number of visitors expressed in overnight stays jumped by 2 % year over year according to the Institut National de la Statistique et des Etudes Economiques (INSEE). France and tourism seem to go very well together these days.

Airbnb and tourism: a favorable synergy with some downsides

Airbnb, as well as other rental sites like Paris Holiday or Housetrip, contributes to this favorable dynamic by easily accommodating tourists and by resolving the long-time problem of insufficient hotel accommodation offer. According to the municipality of Paris, almost 2 million people have profited from individual rentals on Airbnb in the city of Light since 2008. If French tourism undeniably benefits from individual rental offers, its fast correlated bookings, large choices and attractive prices, the quick success of the startup also has some downsides for the State. Indeed, adverse effects on housing prices have been noticed over the last years, mostly in cities where the housing offer is already restricted for inhabitants, like Barcelona or Paris.

“The phenomenon is of great concern to us,” says Ian Brossat, chief housing assistant to the municipality of Paris. “The fear is that Paris and other major French cities undergo a similar fate to the one of Barcelona, where this type of accommodation has disfigured the city and contributed to the real estate crisis”. Indeed, Barcelona has over 137,000 beds available on Airbnb, twice more than the traditional hotel offer. If renting out a place for one, two, three or four weeks a year during the holidays is obviously not the root of evil, there is a proliferation of multi-owners who rent the whole year without declaring, subtracting at the same time their place from the conventional rental market. As a result, thousands of homes formerly rented to people working and living in these cities are now furnished for tourists all year, which restricts the rental offer and accentuates the housing crisis.

To counterbalance this effect, Catalonia’s local government took action and imposed a 0.65€ tourist tax per person for each night booked via the website. To fight illegal practices and to ensure the people who rent places are individuals and not businesses, an owner cannot rent more than two rooms simultaneously and not for more than four months a year.

Following the Spanish example, the French government introduced an amendment to the Budget Bill for 2015 which subjects individual rentals to a tourist tax, consisting in a local tax allocated to a municipality recognised as a tourist resort to fund general equipment and union initiatives. In France, an owner can legally rent his principal residence when going on holiday for example. But if he has a second home, the owner has to declare his activity and pay the tourist tax. In light of this, the Council of Paris has adopted a deliberation which entered into force on July 31st, and specifies the modalities of institution, liquidation and collection of a tourist tax “taxe de séjour” starting October 1st 2015. Additionally, in Paris, in order to qualify for a « meublé de tourisme », which corresponds to commercial property rented out on short term the entire year, the City Council decided that an owner has to compensate for the lost living space by creating an equivalent floor space elsewhere in the same city district.

Taxation on individual rentals is not likely to break the Airbnb dynamic

Regarding the impact such a regulation might have on Airbnb and French tourism, there is no reason to be worried. The success of the site with 6 million hosts registered in 2013 and 10 million in 2014 is not likely to be endangered. Without any doubt, the adopted restrictions by the Council of Paris, consisting in prohibiting multiple rental offers by a same person, is likely to amount to a slight decrease of available houses or apartments. However, this loss of rental offer has to be put into context with the permanently growing Airbnb community, and it is, therefore, improbable to break the favorable tendency of attracting new customers.

Furthermore, taxation for Airbnb rentals is still considerably less high than for most hotels and Airbnb customers are willing to rent not only rooms but also entire places which differs significantly from the hotel market and targets a different type of customer.

To illustrate, the maximum 0,75€ tourist tax Airbnb will have to debit from their clients in France is still much below the one a three star hotel has to pay which can amount up to 1,5€ per person and per night. Moreover, it can be seen as a first step to regulating collaborative activities and harmonising them with the traditional economic ones. As the tax is fully paid by the customer and reallocated to the municipality, Airbnb has no direct financial costs to bear.

A simple and coherent tax system is key to bring together Airbnb, its customers and local authorities interests

In this context, it is crucial that the implementation of the tax is simple and efficient not only in Paris or any other major city but also on a larger scale. In this regard, Sarah Roy, director of communications Airbnb France stated: “We already (collect taxes) overseas, in some cities like Portland or Amsterdam. In France, the challenge will be to generalise it to the whole country, with each municipality voting a different tax rate.” Indeed, the law specifies that “a tourist tax or a flat city tax may be established by the municipal council” whose amount may vary between 0,20€ and a maximum amount of 0,75€ regarding homes or residences as rented on Airbnb. On top, a small fraction of district tax can add up to this sum. For example, Airbnb announces on its website a 0.83€ tax to be levied in Paris starting October 1st.

On the one hand, such a tax will result in a considerable gain for the municipality considering the fact that Airbnb proposes around 30 000 spots to rent in the capital. On the other hand, the administrative burden for Airbnb and their hosts can be considerable. In the new system, Airbnb will have to act as a fiscal representant of the hosts and collect the tax on their behalf. These amounts will afterwards be retributed directly to the municipalities. As every municipality can have a different tax rate, Airbnb will most likely have to develop a tool, in form of an online tax filing, in order to calculate the tourist tax and the levy, depending on the location of the leased property. Besides, renting platforms like Airbnb will also have to transmit the information concerning the number of people housed on the territory, the number of nights, the total amount of tax collected and the related transaction number to the municipalities. By taking into consideration that, according to the Interior Ministry, not less than 2367 municipalities are actually levying a tourist tax, tendency increasing, it goes nearly without saying that a complex system with different tax rates applying is most likely going to contradict with a simple, transparent and most importantly effective tax levy.

In other words, it seems very doubtful such a gigantic task can be implemented on a large scale to an entire country. Airbnb currently redistributes tourist taxes in different cities around the globe, but cannot generalise these tax levies if they are not highly simplified. The system which just entered into legal force is going to be satisfactory to bigger cities and to the disadvantage of smaller ones, who are going to bear the consequences of a complex and illegible tax system.

For this reason, the fiscal administration bears responsibility and has an interest in helping Airbnb recover the tax. Thus, a decree could put into law a tax of a single amount for a “meublé touristique non classé” applying to Airbnb rentals, which further could be collected at a larger territorial administrative unit. Indeed, the tourist tax is often difficult to implement for smaller municipalities which are completely over-challenged by the great variety of categories and amounts applying to the housing and hotel offer. An administrative reorganisation in the form of a tax collection at departmental level could make affected municipalities finally profit from those tax revenues they often don’t have the means and financial resources to collect within their territory. The beneficiary administrative unit (département) could afterwards reallocate the collected tax funds to the municipalities and by extension directly subsidise infrastructural projects within the affected territory. Any such undertaking would constitute a major simplification in the local tax levy not only for Airbnb, transferring the tax revenues among a maximum of 101 départments and not among more than 2000 municipalities, but also for the local tax administration as on current law, departments have the possibility to raise a 10% additional tax on top of the local (municipal) tourist tax for their own profit, adding unnecessary complexity to the entire system.

A potential win-win situation for every actor in the economy

To sum up, implementing a tourist tax on individual rentals is not likely to have a negative effect on attracting tourists to France. What is certain, however, is that a simple and transparent tax levy can be beneficial for every actor concerned.

Indeed, local authorities have money to gain which can be reinvested in municipal projects and improve the local infrastructure, likely to enhance locals’ quality of life and visiting tourists’ offered services. To illustrate, local authorities could implement a considerable number of digital services in order to facilitate tourist’s life when visiting, from increasing electronic ticket purchase online to developing smart-apps in order to guide and inform visitors of all available utilities and activities.

Airbnb can claim to contribute with its activity to the general interest, be considered as an equal economic actor to the traditional ones like the hotel business and defend itself with legitimacy against claims of unfair competition.

Last but not least, tourists are not gonna be discouraged to visit France and to book an apartment or room on Airbnb because they have to pay around 10 euros (presuming a couple stays for a week) of tourist tax to the French local authorities mostly if they have the possibility to profit from better services on the spot.

In the end, it can be a win-win situation for everyone. In times where the French government wants to “modernise” the country and its economy, as repetitively stated by Prime Minister Valls and Minister for Economics Macron, the executive can seize the opportunity of putting actions behind the famous words of the “administrative simplification” task.

Published for Rude Baguette on August 26th 2015

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