Barcelona quickly comes to terms with the terror attacks

Barcelona has quickly returned to normality after the appalling terrorist attack on Las Ramblas. Anyone who knows this city and its people will not be surprised. 

August is the strangest of months in Barcelona. The Catalan capital is vacated by the locals for much of the month. Shops, bars and restaurants close for a couple of weeks, with the most popular ones shutting down for the full 31 days. Kids are only half way through their 12 week summer break, so schools and nurseries sit empty. During the sweltering August heat, streets that swell throughout June and July find some relief; as if  a pressure value has been released.

I am one of those residents that heads off to avoid the heat. And where better than Scotland for that? An increasing number of Spanish people are finding Scotland a rainy, mild, cultural heaven. Thousands of Spaniards flock to Edinburgh for the festival and the flights between Scotland and Barcelona seem especially packed during Edinburgh festival time.

Sat in a bar in during this years early August trip to Edinburgh I overheard a Scottish waitress apologising to a Spanish family. It was “raining again” and she was truly sorry – apologising as if it was her fault. I could tell that the waitress couldn’t quite work out why the family were all smiling as they looked out into the thin, grey, drizzle outside.  It’s 30 degrees in Barcelona today and most of central and southern Spain has seen 40+ degrees over the summer.  Spaniards visit, not despite the cold and the rain, but because of it.

I was only partly back in Scotland for the break from the heat, as I had a few meetings about our Homeless Hackathon. I happened to arrive in Edinburgh only a few hours before the attack on Las Ramblas and I saw the story unfold on the BBC news channel from the lobby of my hotel, and via social media.

During that evening, my phone pinged constantly with people asking about me and the family. Nice to know people care, but it did take me longer than usual to eat a curry in Mother India in Glasgow. A few friends knew we lived on a Rambla (there are several across the city, we live about two miles away from Las Rambals) and they seemed especially concerned. We hadn’t let anyone know we were OK because, really, why should we? We don’t contact people every week to say we haven’t been one of the 21 people who’ve been killed on a Spanish road. However, as we were still kind of travelling, we had a less controversial reason not to update family and friends.

It is a strange feeling to be away from home when an incident like this occurs. Your heart and stomach seem to merge and an uneasy dull pain takes hold. There’s relief at being far away during any incident, but a need to be close to others at a time of shared grief. Its surprising how long that awkward feeling persists.

Barcelona reacts

Less than 24hours after the attack Barcelona was, amazingly, able to organise a vigil on Plaça Catalunya, the square that sits at the top of Las Ramblas. It was a solemn and quiet affair. There were no political banners, placards or national flags. The only message: “No tinc por!” (I am not afraid – in Catalan). In the crowd of a few thousand, the Prime Minister of Spain, the President of the Generalitat of Catalunya and King Felipe VI stood, for once, united in silence and shared respect.

A few hundred yards from the square, towards the sea, Las Ramblas, that narrow, famous strip, was full of people – including those who rarely visit: most Catalans give the area a wide berth. However typically, the world over, locals show their strength and determination not to be bullied, by returning to the scene of an incident, even if they never normally go there.

Las Ramblas – Busy as usual

Barcelona quickly comes to terms with the terror attacks

During the days that followed other smaller vigils were held across Catalunya and Spain. Perhaps the most emotional took place in the town of Rubi, near Barcelona when the father of the youngest victim embraced an Imam.

On Saturday 26th August the largest demonstration took place in Barcelona, with an estimated 500,000 taking to the streets. Ostensively an anti terrorist demonstration, many Catalans took the opportunity to provide a wider context for the attacks. But you can look at it another way: here’s one view of the demonstration, as a takeover by separatists a theme echoed by other UK outlets. And in a similar vain, here’s an article from a Spanish based commentator in Politico which seemed to deliberately stir up Catalan emotions.

These simplistic views are a typical establishment response to the complex issues in Catalunya. They are devoid of context and seek unity on every issue, were in fact there are large divides. It’s a view that sees people as some kind of shallow cup, easily over filled by emotion, able to only concentrate on one thing at a time. Thankfully, Catalans are normal educated citizens of the world and are able to see the connection and highlight the link between supporting brutal regimes like Saudi Arabia and an act of sickening violence on the streets of Barcelona.

With the attack taking place only six weeks before the Catalan independence referendum, an incident like this was always going to be politicised. To think otherwise is to ignore the after affects of recent terror attacks throughout Europe.

In the immediate aftermath it was highlighted that Mossos d’Esquadrathe Catalan police force that dealt so effective and swiftly with the attacks, did not see free flowing, terrorist intelligence, as it had been denied access by the Spanish Government. Many supporters of independence see this as yet another example of the Spanish Government trying to stymia Catalunya’s attempts to play a fuller, more meaningful role on the world stage.

With a large contingent of Madrid based politicians (who are flatly refusing to recognise the referendum on the 1st October – a massive slight to the democratic process in Catalunya) taking part in the anti terror demonstration, there was always going to be a political reaction from those seeking Catalan independence.

The Monarchy was also a target. Considering the question which will be asked on the 1st October referendum paper is: “Do you want Catalunya to be an independent state in the form of a republic?”, the presence of the King was not going to be unnoticed.

Removing the floral tributes started 11 days after the attack.

Only eight days separated the attack on Las Ramblas and the massive demonstration in Barcelona. A week is not long enough for feelings to heal or the pain to disappear. However, in Catalan politics it is long enough for people to  see through the haze of emotion and pain, and start to piece together cause and affect.

Turismofobia in Barcelona

Most people in Spain aren’t surprised that “turismofobia” has had a shot in the arm in August. It’s hot and stuff. Many Spanish are on holiday. And there are millions of tourists currently holidaying in Spain. Turismofobia in Barcelona is growing. 

The tourism industry is booming, but at what cost?

Phrases such as “Tourism Kills Neighbourhoods” or “Tourists go home, you are not wanted” have been popping up all across Barcelona over the last few years. I’ve seen these, or similar phrases, scrawled on walls and printed on posters and flyers. There’s even a white bed sheet, with “Tourists Go Home” written in defiant red, that’s hung from the same balcony in the barrio of Barceloneta every summer. (link in Spanish)

As the third most popular city in Europe for tourists (behind London and Paris) the relatively small city of Barcelona clearly has issues dealing with this level of  tourists. I have covered the background to the issues in detail previously. In summary, the price of property is being pushed up by short term tourist lets; traditional shops are being replaced by Starbucks and whole areas are losing their cultural identity. The locals are noisily and quite understandably pushing back.

Turismofobia in Barcelona
They should have stuck with “Space Invaders” That  would have been a better heading.

Up until now, most of the obvious reaction to the level or tourism has been the street graffiti / artwork and low key demonstrations. Above is one of the arty and rather amusing posters from my barrio Poble Nou.

Turismofobia in Barcelona

There has been a palpable change in the last couple of weeks. The peak numbers of tourists this August, and the heat has obviously made some hot under the collar.  An anti-tourist phrase was spray painted onto a Tourist Bus – while it was full of tourists. The tires were also, allegedly, burst. You can see the “attack” for yourself here (25 seconds in).

The incident was, not unsurprisingly, recorded and splashed over social media: it was the coverage, rather than scaring the tourists, that was the point of the stunt. Similarly a city centre hotel was paint-bombed and filmed. But that’s not all. Tourist bikes have been vandalised in Barcelona and these little stickers (below) put on cars across Majorca too. It’s certainly unsavoury, but it’s very far from an extreme response considering the intimidation that many locals feel during the high tourist seasons.

Turismofobia en barcelona

A few groups with political affiliations appear to have spearheaded these campaigns and the coverage has been significant in the Spanish TV and press.

The UK media has happily picked up on this being a “young lefties” (this from the BBC) anti capitalist reaction of sorts. (UPDATE: I want to add this one from The Independent as it perfectly sums up my later point about “you continentals should be happy with what we give you”)

But on the ground it is obvious that similar views are much more widely held. Arran Jovent seem to be the busiest and the noisiest organisers but it would be an error to think that their views are simply extremist and can be ignored.

The headline grabbing actions have been condemned by local community groups and Barcelona’s Mayor,  however many locals share the concerns being voiced by political parties across Spain. But not every political party seems to understand the frustration. As you may expect from a Conservative Prime Minister, Mariano Rajoy was blaming “radicals” for the actions, as he made a wholehearted, money first, defence of the tourism industry. Money talks, but so do the communities across Barcelona, Catalunya and Spain. And the talk is of resistance.

Many residents are vocal in their anger at the number of tourists (which rises year on year) and the type of tourism Barcelona attracts. Tourists impact the places they visit and a balance has to be found. The concerns I’ve heard do not come from Spain’s disenfranchised youth, but from middle aged and older city dwellers.  The genuine concern for the impact on the barrio culture crosses age and political affiliation.

Spain has a real and growing issue with finding a balance between tourism and the affect on local communities

It may be the young who are spearheading the dissension, but few disagree with the motivation driving them to act. And it’s not just the “Crazy Catalans” Other regions and cities in Spain have, or are planning to have, anti tourism rallies. And its not just Spain. CNN Travel recently ran a “Can Venice save itself from its own popularity” piece. Much of the continent is rallying to support its culture against a wave of commercialism.

An “anti-tourism” campaign puts further pressure on the Barcelona Mayor 

As soon aAda Colau was in office she quickly put the shackles on parts of the tourist industry by restricting where, and how many, new bedrooms could be added to the city’s stock. The Mayor is trying the most difficult of tasks in this reactionary and forthright city: balancing commerce against communities.  But she is clearly trying.

It’s not just Ada Colau and her administration that is attempting to slowdown the tourism industry in Barcelona. Smaller municipal areas are taking the lead too. The popular tourist mode of transport – the Segway – was banned from the sea front last year. It seems like a blanket ban is not far behind, as stymying the use continues throughout the city.

Like tourist buses, bikes and cars, the Segway is regarded as a wheeled enemy.

Another area bans the Segway.

Many of the city wide responses to rebalance tourism with local living have received cross part support. Recently a new tourist tax was agreed for “day trippers” to Barcelona. Day visitors had been slipping through the gaps but this new levy will see day visitors (link in Spanish) contributing to lessen the impact of their time in Barcelona.

The narrative back in the UK is of typical continentals; never happy with what they have, plus a good dose of umbrage at that lack of welcome for pissed up Brits.  However the picture, here on the ground, is of a city united – north and south of Diagonal, and de las montañas al mar, that is quite rightly standing its ground against, incessant wave after wave of tourists.