By Catherine Bennett
MADRID (Reuters) - Authorities in Barcelona have stepped up a crackdown on homes illegally rented out to tourists via homesharing websites such as Airbnb, ordering hundreds to be removed from listings and hitting firms with a fine, while threatening more in the future.
Barcelona is not the only European city to take a swipe at Airbnb, which has rapidly expanded across the globe and often come into conflict with local rules. This year, Paris conducted raids on illegally sub-letted apartments and Berlin imposed a ban on owners renting out entire properties.
Barcelona's town hall said on Wednesday it would fine both Airbnb and fellow online rental firm, Homeaway, 60,000 euros ($66,918) each. If the companies continue to refuse to regulate their own users, the fine would jump to 600,000 euros each, a source from the town hall said.
Airbnb said in a statement it would appeal any fine issued.
Barcelona's leftist mayor Ada Colau, who took over last June and froze the granting of new tourist licenses for homes and hotels, has launched a plan to stop people from letting out their homes without a license via homesharing websites.
On Wednesday, her town hall ordered 256 apartments to be taken down from such platforms and said it was investigating over 400 other potential offenders.
She has blamed the sharp rise in Airbnb's popularity for greater tension among residents who fear an increase in 'binge tourism' and have protested against rowdy visitors. The number of people using Airbnb in Barcelona has tripled to 900,000 in the three years prior to 2015, its own data shows.
The new plan will see the creation of a multi-lingual website that invites people to identify and denounce unlicensed tourist accommodation, and a free-to-call telephone number allowing locals to expose neighbors that break the rules.
In the last month, 375 complaints had been made on the website, the town hall source said.
Owners that wish to rent out property to tourists must apply for a license and display it on any online advertisement. A team of 20 inspectors set up by the town hall is tasked with rooting out those who fail to jump through the legal hoops.
The measures come during a record year for tourism in both the Catalan capital and Spain as a whole, with the number of passengers coming through Barcelona's El Prat airport up 13 percent in June against last year, according to Spanish airport operator AENA.
The European Commission published guidance on the sharing economy for member states in June, saying that new business models can boost jobs and growth in the European Union, if encouraged and developed responsibly.
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(Reporting by Catherine Bennett; Editing by Angus Berwick and David Evans)