Balancing Tourism in Barcelona

In Barcelona the walls very often come to life: “this community is not for sale” reads the statement painted on a new hostel development in Poblenou. The city’s citizens are hostile.

If you’d just been reading the business headlines you certainly wouldn’t think this was the case. The tourist industry in Barcelona would succinctly sum up by saying “we’ve never had it so good” That industry is of course made up of thousands of individual bars, hotels, nightclubs and restaurants. And within these establishments there are doormen, chefs, cleaners and managers, and every one of them would lift a glass in celebration: Salud! Las turistas!

The impact of a successful industry ripples prosperity across the community that supports it. For Spain, Catalunya, and Barcelona in particular, tourism is a super successful, money making enterprise.

The importance of tourism to Catalunya

The entire tourism industry generates 12% of Catalunya’s GDP (to give you some comparison, tourism is only 5% of Scottish GDP) Tourism is widely credited with cushioning Barcelona from the recent global financial crisis. Some 120,000 jobs in the Catalan capital are fuelled by tourists.

From a purely commercial perspective the strength of this sector is  regarded as an unmitigated success. That view would see Barcelona proudly placed in an enviable position, looking down on other tourist hungry cities. However, scratch the surface and you will find that many of the capital’s Catalans abhor the wider negative impact of tourism; for them, they have never had it so bad. And it is only set to get worse.

In 2016, with many tourists fearing terrorism, should they venture from continental Europe, Spain, Catalunya and Barcelona will welcome more tourists than ever. Actually, as I am finding out, walking the streets and talking to locals, “welcome” is definitely not the correct word.

So when did the love affair with tourists end?

Spain has always found it difficult to find a balance between welcoming tourist money and cowering from their habits. Under Franco in 1959 the greatest of all compromises came in the two cupped shape of the bikini. As the ultra Conservative government scrambled to find a solution to topless, sunbathing foreigners, a thin strip of material allowed seaside Spain to reap the rewards from Tourism, while the Spanish state maintained its decency.

Throughout the following years Barcelona locals have seen, at an increasing rate, areas of their city taken over by tourists and tourist hungry businesses. It started with Las Ramblas, one of the city’s most important historical centres. The street that had seen pitched battles between rival factions in the Spanish civil war has lost the battle with tourists.

Tourist traps gradually spread out across the Barrio Gótico and Ciutat Vella – the two oldest parts of the city – then increasingly touched areas further from the city centre, all but consuming the tiny ex fishing community of Barceloneta. All to the chargin of locals.

The idea that the “success” of Barcelona as a tourist destination was anything but a blessing appeared on the horizon for many foreigners for the first time in 2014. Coverage of the “anti tourist” documentary Bye, Bye Barcelona hinted at the negative impacts of this massive trade. In a rather one sided take of the complex issues at play Bye, Bye Barcelona was never going to be able to cover the difficult balance that the citizens and especially the city’s legislators now face.

A less than quiet revolution

Take a walk through any of the large barrios in Barcelona and within ten minutes or so you will more than likely come across something that more than hints at the local dislike and distrust of this increase in tourism. It may be a homemade banner in Barceloneta that reads, in English, “Tourists Go Home”, or a recent magazine article posted to a pillar in Poblenou. The noise is constant and growing.

Poblenou a worrying and major focus for low cost tourism
Poblenou is fast becoming a new major focus for low cost tourism. And its residents are not happy

To understand why the volume has been turned up to 11, you just need to look at the numbers. Barcelona (pop. 1,604,555) is now the third most visited city in Europe, behind London (pop. 8,539,000) and Paris (pop. 2,249,975). A record 8 million people are expected to visit Barcelona this year. With roughly 5 tourists for every 1 resident it is hard to argue that Barcelona may on several levels struggle.

It is not tourists per say, but the rate of the increase where the real issue lies. In the last twenty years the city has seen tourist numbers quadruple and many believe that the city and especially the locals can no longer cope. The complaints fall broadly into three categories:

  1. Barcelona is attracting the “wrong type” of tourists
  2. Accommodating tourists is pushing residents from their homes, and businesses from the high street and
  3. The identity and cultural heritage of the city (and the wider region) is disappearing

With these three areas in mind Ada Colau, the charismatic new Mayor, has a plan to re-balance the tourism sector’s interests more in line with local residents.

The wrong type of tourists

“Low cost” tourism is a particular pain to the Catalans. The Barcelona authorities are at pains to suggest that there is no “drunken tourism” in Barcelona and have for several years taken steps to ban pub crawls and booze cruises. However a short walk on any summer night through El Born, or down Passeig de Joan de Borbó, across Gràcia, El Raval or Eixample will bring to life the issues. Tourists are literally reveling in low cost accommodation, food and entertainment in Barcelona.

Poblenou during Carnaval
Poblenou during Carnaval

There are of course “desirable” tourists and even the left wing Mayor is keen to point that out, for example the 80,000 extra visitors heading to Barcelona at the end of February for Mobile World Congress are this town’s type of tourist.

The Mayor’s support for this event proves that she is trying to find a balance. Mobile World Congress provides a multi million euro injection every year into the Catalan economy and Barcelona’s new Mayor has offered to support the organisation in the city beyond the current agreement, with Barcelona continuing to host the event until at least 2023. Tourism is crucial to the success of this thriving city and it has the Mayor’s support. 

Accommodating the tourist market

Following on from her predecessor, Ada Colau’s administration took two brave steps to redress the balance in accommodating locals and tourists. One of her first decrees, introduced in July, was a one-year moratorium on new tourist accommodation. The move is “provisional and precautionary” said Colau in an interview with Catalunya Ràdio. “Tourism is an asset that the city needs to take care of and make more sustainable, because it created tensions”. As a former anti eviction campaigner Ada Colau knows all about dealing with tensions.

The decree affected eight of the eleven new luxury projects in Barcelona, stymying thirty hotels in total but it is not just hotel chains which are under the spotlight, those offering their homes (or in some cases – their rental investments) for short term rents are under the spotlight too. Airbnb has not had an easy ride in this city.

Airbnb and similar platforms pose a direct and measurable threat to affordable housing. In many popular areas rents are increasing quickly, pushed ever higher by speculative properly purchases.

In Catalunya all establishments used by tourists must be registered with the City Council or the Catalan Government and a tiny tourist tax of 0.65€ is due in Barcelona. The Generalitat has already taken direct measures to slow the flow of properties going online by imposing the first €60,000 fines on AirBnB in January. The Generalitat opted to fine the site, rather than the individual owners, for the unregistered short term lets appearing on rental sites.

The Barrio in which I have chosen to make my home Poblenou is particularly affected. Sitting in the larger district of Sant Martí, between 2012 and 2014 almost 900 homes with the official “Los apartamentos de uso turístico (HUT)” have been listed, however the actual number available and openly advertised is likely to stretch into the couple of thousand.

The identity and cultural heritage of the city is disappearing

Two of Barcelona’s most famous “attractions” have started to limit access to tourists. Groups of tourists are now strongly discouraged in La Boquería the largest market in Barcelona, with security guards expected to operate over the busier months this year. Parc Güell, which was originally built by Gaudí and opened as a public park in 1926, now sets a limit each day on the number of available tourist places to visit the park. The locals are making their move and they now have a very supportive Mayor and regional Government.

Spend any significant amount of time in Catalunya and you will find that Catalans are exceptionally proud of their heritage and culture. This cultural defense has spread from Barcelona. At the end of last year as part of the deal to invest a new Catalan President, the political party CUP called for the abandonment of BCN World, a huge 800 hectare project that would have seen a competitor to EuroDisney in Catalunya.

Millions of Euros would have been spent in the region and in fact the inflow of money was one of the reasons for a popular party not to support the development. The quiet decision to mothball BCN World was made with the knowledge that in Spain, when such large sums of money flow, corruption comes along for the ride.

The message is clear from local resident groups to the Generalitat. Las Ramblas can’t house more tourist tat. Poblenou can’t have any more hotels and Catalunya is not the home for a super casino and an extended theme park: enough is enough. There is a balance to be found, and many in Catalunya believe the scales have tipped too far in favour of the tourists. 2016 is still to redress the balance.

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