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Overtourism in Barcelona - are the battle lines drawn?

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Overtourism in Barcelona - are the battle lines drawn?
Protest on the beach in Barcelona. Photo: AFP
17:35 CEST+02:00
2017 saw the word ‘overtourism' enter the lexicon. Now 2018 looks set to be the year where the battle lines are firmly drawn, especially in cities such as Barcelona. So just what can we do to address it?

Vicki Brown of Responsible Travel tackles the issue head on.

Barcelona is one of those cities that seems just about perfect.

It perches on the edge of the Mediterranean, has a gorgeous climate, is big enough to have plenty going on but small enough not to be overwhelming, and its streets are filled with glorious architecture. While 1.6 million people are lucky enough to call Barcelona home, many more choose the city as a holiday destination. A lot more -close to 32 million each year, in fact. Try get your head around that number is difficult; trying to elbow your way down La Rambla in peak tourist season is even harder.

Why is Barcelona swamped?

While hotels and resorts began springing up along the Costas in the 1960s and 70s, it wasn't until the 1992 Olympic Games, hosted by Barcelona, that the city really appeared on the tourist map. The port city underwent a facelift. It embraced its Mediterranean coastline, imported sand to create new beaches in place ofdocks, and the tourists began to arrive. 

Barcelona also has the Mediterranean's largest port, which makes it a prime spot for huge cruise ships. In 1990, just 115,000 cruise passengers arrived in Barcelona. By 2016, that figure stood at 2.7 million. This is a massive influx in visitor numbers in a short period of time.

With just a few hours or days in the city, visitors have a limited radius and will tick off the same places: La Rambla, the Sagrada Familia, Parc Güell, La Boqueria. Little money is spent outside of the main tourist areas, and the congestion is unpleasant for both residents and other tourists.

In Crowded Out, our new film on overtourism, Barcelona resident and Professor of Urban Tourism at the University of Barcelona Fabiola Mancinelli says: ‘Here they call it ‘el turismo de borrachera' – the ‘drunken party'… If numbers continue to grow then Barcelona could die of success.'

The impact on the town


Tourists swamp Barcelona's market. Photo: A still from Crowded Out, a film by Responsible Travel.

The high demand for tourist accommodation, coupled with the opportunity to rent out via sites such as Airbnb, means that rents are soaring. Everyday shops are being replaced by souvenir stands, bike rental shops and cafes which are unaffordable – or just unnecessary – for locals. 

One reason that overtourism has made more headlines in Barcelona than in other destinations is the local response. The Catalans aren't known for armchair activism: people have taken tothe streets to show the world how they feel. Signs around the city demanded that tourists go home. In July 2017, masked protesters attacked a tour bus, slashing the tyres and writing‘El Turisme Mata Els Barris' – ‘Tourism Kills Neighbourhoods' – on the windscreen. Streets and plazas have been filled with placard-heavy marches and rallies. 

For most protesters, however, this is not a battle with the tourists; it's a battle with the authorities, with businesses, and even with capitalism itself. The lack of regulation, and the blatant incentives that have allowed their city to become increasingly unliveable, are what they object to.

Can the tide of tourism be managed?


Protests in the streets of Barcelona. Photo:AFP

The local government is starting to implement measures to curb overtourism, such as banning Segway tours in the city centre, putting a moratorium on new hotels and holiday apartment licenses and forcing Airbnb to withdraw thousands of listings of unlicensed apartments from its website and increasing its number of holiday-let inspectors. 

In Madrid, new legislation under discussion has gone even further, with apartment or home rentals to be limited to no more than 90 days per year and whole apartment buildings used for short-term rentals to be licensed in the same way as hotels. Some say that will translate to 95 per cent of the short-term vacation rentals being taken off the market.

Valencia is looking to introduce similar legislation, including plans to limit tourist apartments to the ground floor or first floor and banning new properties in the city's historic centre, while Palma de Mallorca has voted for a ban on practically all short-term holiday lets.

What can you do as a tourist?

  • Where possible try visit popular places in off season
  • Hire a local guide to advise on avoiding crowds and minimising disruption
  • Read up on local customs and ways of life - open your mind to the fact that your holiday is somebody else's home
  • Read Responsible Travel's tips for avoiding overtourism
  • Ditch the bucket list and Tripadvisor top 10s – they'll just take you to the same places everyone else goes – and seek out less well known places

Responsible Travel is behind a new documentary that highlights the plight of overtourism. To watch the film for free, click here

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