MADRID, July 7 The region of Catalonia, whose beaches on the northeastern coast of Spain draw millions of tourists every year, has fined home rental website Airbnb for marketing short-term room lets, a first in Europe amid a mounting crackdown on the practice.
Airbnb, a San Francisco start-up valued at $10 billion, was fined 30,000 euros ($40,900) for allowing homeowners to rent out rooms to travellers for under 30 days, which is illegal in the region, a spokesman for the Catalan government said.
Eight companies have so far been fined for similar practices, the spokesman said, adding in total about 55 could end up being penalised after a review of around 2,000 online platforms offering hospitality services.
Airbnb said in a statement it was reviewing the decision and considering its legal options. The fine is its first in Europe.
The firm, which lets homeowners share their homes for a fee by marketing them online, has become a popular alternative to hotels and mirrors consumers' growing reliance on online sharing services in other areas such as transport, including cars.
Users of the hospitality website have booked 10 million rooms in close to 200 countries since 2007. Earlier this year a group led by private equity firm TPG Capital Management agreed to invest $450 million in Airbnb, valuing it at $10 billion.
But Airbnb's facilitation of short-term lets has also brought it growing legal headaches in countries where such practices are banned or strictly regulated. The company agreed in May to turn over its user records to New York state officials investigating illegal short-term renting.
In Catalonia, home to the seaside city of Barcelona, the regional government tightened rules on hospitality in 2012, though it does allow homeowners to rent out entire houses or flats if they register with a local tourism authority. It says this is to better control the quality of services on offer.
"We need to protect this destination," the spokesman for the Catalan government said, adding it would keep fining Airbnb or seek to have its site blocked in the region if it did not drop marketing these types of rentals.
"Barcelona should stay on the cutting edge of innovation, and we're disappointed to see a ruling ... that will hold the city back," Airbnb said in its statement. "We will continue to provide robust information about the rules in Barcelona, and require all Airbnb hosts to follow those rules."
($1 = 0.7331 Euros) (Reporting by Sarah White, editing by David Evans)