Report Travelling in Barcelona

Critical mass tourism

Arriving in their millions, foreign visitors contribute to the Catalan capital’s economic boom. But the downside to mass tourism, fuelled by cheap flights and low-cost accommodation sites, has led to growing disgruntlement from locals.

Published on 26 January 2019 at 08:00

Having only recently recovered from its financial crisis and being second only to Greece for unemployment in Europe, one might assume that the booming tourism Barcelona receives would be unanimously welcomed by locals, but the reality is very different.

A prevalent anti-tourism sentiment is growing in Catalonia, with locals feeling as though the arrival of more than 30 million visitors per year lowers the standard of living, drives up rent prices and overwhelms public spaces, among other disturbances.

Yet with tourism accounting for a substantial chunk of its economy and providing so many jobs, is it a case of nit-picking from the locals, or is there a genuine case that tourism is having a negative consequence?

Unlike in most recent cases, the 1992 Olympic Games were the start of Barcelona was hugely beneficial for the city, with international corporations setting up in the north-eastern region of Spain, bringing with it over 20,000 jobs and improved infrastructure. It even led to the creation of Barceloneta beach, the most commonly visited among tourists today.

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To say the impact of the Games have been transformative would be an understatement. In 2000, foreigners accounted for less than 2 percent of the population. The current official figure stands at 18 percent, though according to the city of Barcelona’s integration and immigration commissioner Lola López, the actual figure is closer to 30 percent.

Barcelona, however, has rarely taken up issue with immigration. In fact, in 2017, tens of thousands marched in the city calling for the Spanish government to meet its pledge to take in even more refugees. Tourism nowadays receives a greatly different response.

What began as a welcome arrival is now a major point of concern for many residents. In 1990, the city of Barcelona received 1.7 million tourists; in 2017, the figure was 32 million, almost 20 times the local population. It is the most visited non-capital city in Europe - only London, Paris and Rome receives more tourists per year.

The most noticeable impact of tourism is on the city’s most famous street, La Rambla. Formerly a classy promenade, home to its famous La Boqueria market, and Liceu opera house. From well-dressed local theatergoers, it has now become a theme park for tourists, full of stands selling cheap souvenirs, caricaturists, knock-off designer clothes and littered with drug dealers and prostitutes by night.

The 1.2-kilometre stretch is practically unwalkable between April and September due to the volume of visitors. This congestion is also visible at all of the city’s major landmarks such as Gaudi’s Park Güell and Sagrada Familia.

This touristic influx has been largely assisted by cheap flights and low-cost accommodation. The average flight with budget carriers like Ryanair was €40 in 2017, and have transformed the industry, much like Airbnb has done in the accommodation sector.

According to The Telegraph, there are 75,000 hotel beds in Barcelona, and 50,000 beds in legal tourist rental properties owned by private landlords and booked through websites such as Airbnb. However, there are also 50,000 illegal beds in properties unregistered for tourism use.

Barcelona became the first ever city to impose fines on Airbnb and HomeAway last year, €600,000 each, for offering unlicensed accommodation – 3,812 properties in the case of Airbnb and 1,744 for HomeAway.

Not everybody is in agreement, however. Manel Casals, director general of the Barcelona hoteliers association, for one, told the Guardian: “Of the 32 million people who visited Barcelona last year, only 8 million stayed in hotels. 23 million were day-trippers who spend very little money in the city. You’re not going to regulate tourism by limiting the number of beds.”

The overwhelming majority of those day-trippers arrive at the port of Barcelona, which can take up to seven large cruises per day from which 30,000 tourists disembark.
On the flip side to this debate is the prosperity that comes with such tourism and it cannot easily be ignored. The reality is that tourism represents 12 percent of Catalonia’s GDP and generates 100,000 jobs in the city of Barcelona.

Mass tourism earns the city around 25 million euros per day, a figure that is not provoking too many complaints from the local government and those working in the industry.

Aside from some of the stronger rhetoric words eschewed by the anti-tourism movement, there are clear and obvious concerns caused by the mass influx of tourism – from overcrowded streets and the rise of rent prices, this is far from merely an ideological matter.  

Of course, the likes of Ryanair and Airbnb contribute to the overall problem but, on the other hand, these companies allow travel to remain affordable for the everyday person who cannot afford to stay at a hotel and pay a lot for flights, rather being exclusively for the wealthy.

And the glimmering identity of modern day Barcelona has been constructed largely due to the those who visited it as a tourist, spreading their experiences which has helped to create this global stature the city holds.

The solution lies somewhere in the middle – the Catalan government must find ways to lessen the burden of the everyday citizen while maintaining a high volume, but more importantly a high standard, of tourism. At the same time, as the anti-tourism movement grows stronger, it needs to be warier of how many lives tourism impacts in Barcelona, in light of its attitude becoming harsher.

It is a delicate issue, one that is multi-faceted and with valid points on each side. With no sign of the number of visitors decreasing, and the anti-tourism sentiment only growing as a result, the drafting and implementation of practical solutions that are kind to all parties is of maximum importance, and fast.


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