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Is tourism destroying Barcelona?

George Mills · 26 Aug 2014, 18:12

Published: 26 Aug 2014 18:12 GMT+02:00

Let's start with the naked figures. In 1990, the city of Gaudi welcomed a modest 1.7 million visitors. By 2000, that figure had climbed to 3.1 million, and last year the Catalan capital received a staggering 7.5 million guests. 

There's no doubt about it. Barcelona — like many parts of Spain — is riding a tourism-fuelled wave. Since hosting the Olympic Games in 1992, the city has become increasingly desirable for tourists, regularly appearing in lists of the world's must-visit cities.

It's not hard to see why either. The city is blessed with great weather, a beautiful coastal location, amazing architecture and a vibrant cultural life.

But beyond the hype, there is a growing undercurrent of opinion that Barcelona could be becoming 'the new Venice', a city so overrun by visitors that it is losing its soul.

Tensions over rampant tourism flared recently when locals in the tightly-packed seaside neighbourhood of Barceloneta took the streets against the ravages of 'low-cost tourism'.

"We are tolerant people but the situation is out of control: the last two years have been crazy," local resident Vicenç Forner told The Local.

Forner, whose family has lived in Barceloneta for generations, is the man behind the photograph of a group of drunk tourists said to have helped spark the recent protests.

Photo: Vicenç Forner

"This was always a working-class neighbourhood, and being near the port we have always been at the forefront of contact with the rest of the world — for better or worse," the photographer explained.

"People here have always welcomed immigrants and visitors, but the tourists who come here now are shouting at all hours of the day and night, and throwing rubbish out of the window. They have no respect," he said.

Forner lays the blame with the town hall which has ignored rampant real estate speculation in the neighbourhood. 

"Investors have been snapping up whole apartment blocks and kicking out the locals, many of whom are elderly," he told The Local.

In their place, holiday apartment have sprouted like mushrooms, many of them unregistered.  Apartment rental website AirBnB has up to 477 apartments listed in Barceloneta, seven times more than those that are officially registered at Barcelona’s Town Hall, which is currently trying to crack down on illegal flats.

"Two or three people rent out these apartments, and then 25 or 30 people show up for a party which goes on all night. There's no control on the part of the owners at all. And the tourists themselves, who come here for four days, just don't care about the city."  

The town hall turns a blind eye because there's too much money on the line, the photographer said. 

"If things continue like this, Barceloneta will turn into (the city's historic centre), the Gothic Quarter within five years. No one lives there anymore."

Joan Callís, the director of travel firm Barcelona Guide Bureau agreed that the city sometimes struggles under the weight of tourism, particularly in locations like the famous Las Ramblas boulevard and the Gaudi-designed Sagrada Familia church.

He also pointed out the high number of day trippers from the coast near Barcelona and people coming off cruise ships could make the small city feel crowded.

While Barcelona received only half as many tourists as London last year, the UK capital is 15 times larger geographically. Tourists are hard to miss in the Catalan capital.

But Callís was keen to stress he doesn't believe the city has too many tourists, talking down the idea of a 'boom' in favour of a "gradual increase", and pointing to the economic benefits visitors bring to the city for everyone from taxi drivers to hotel owners.

"That money trickles down to everyone else, although not always equally," he told The Local.

"The neighbourhoods that don't enjoy the benefits of tourism want more, while the busy parts of town want less," he said.

"In general, though, people in Barcelona are very accepting of tourism."

Story continues below…

However, Callís recognized that careful planning was key to sustainable tourism in Barcelona. "We wouldn't stick 50 people on a tour through the (city's) iconic Boquería market nor would we organize bike tours through the narrow streets of the Gothic Quarter," he said.

"We also use radio guides with headphones on our tours so we don't bother locals," he added.

There was unwritten code of conduct among tour operators in Barcelona, Callís said, but unfortunately not everyone followed the rules all of the time.

"You can't stop tourists from visiting Barcelona, though. Freedom of movement is a fundamental human right," he concluded.

Forner doesn't want to see an end to tourism in Barcelona either, but wants this to be "quality tourism".

"It's great to have hotels and good restaurants but people sleeping on the beach doesn't help anyone at all," he said.

The photographer also believes Barcelona now needs to do some serious tourism planning for the future, even at the level of small yet crucial — and often overlooked — details: like installing public lavatories. 

"Sometimes when I'm walking along Las Ramblas and I see all the tourists, I think of the city's 7.5 million visitors, and I think to myself, 'Where do all these people go to the toilet?' he said.

For more news from Spain, join us on Facebook and Twitter.

George Mills (george.mills@thelocal.com)

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