OPINION: Tourism is a solution, not a problem

The closure of an iconic pastry store in Barcelona prompts James Blick to reflect on how tourism must work to prevent cities from becoming wastelands of sameness.

OPINION: Tourism is a solution, not a problem
Tourists crowd La Boqueria market in Barcelona. Photo: AFP

So Long Brunells

This weekend, after over 150 years in the same family, the iconic Barcelona pastry shop Brunells will close its doors forever. It's a tragedy for Barcelona and the Born neighbourhood to lose a business with so much history, so much story and full of so much love.

Carles, the 3rd generation owner, is one of the gentlest and kindest business owners I've had the opportunity to collaborate with in the 7 years running Devour Tours. Whenever I stopped by on trips to the city, I would always leave with a small bag of pastries under my arm.

Businesses come and businesses go. Not every business can survive forever. Sure. But we must be very mindful that in losing these iconic establishments, we lose the very thing that makes our cities unique.

There are so many reasons that must tie into Carles’ decision – the downturn in tourism since the challenging events in Barcelona late last year, plus also the upturn in tourism that has driven locals from their homes due to home-sharing run riot. And no doubt a few more reasons we’re not privy to.

Either way, Carles doesn’t want to close. But financially he has no other choice.

After 150 years of business, Brunells is closing. Photo: James Blick

I've seen this pattern repeated over and over in Barcelona (where I've spent a lot of time) and Madrid (where I live). But clearly this is a global issue.

In an increasingly globalised world, how do we prevent our cities from becoming utterly homogenous and indistinguishable from each other?

I don't have the perfect answer, but as the owner of a tourism business and a regular tourist, I know that tourism is a massive part of the solution (and certainly doesn't have to be part of the problem).

And I see tourism as a solution through the lens of what I call the Three Ps: Personal. Private. Public.

Let me explain.

Tourists Are Part of the Solution

The reason for visiting Barcelona or Mumbai or Queenstown is to experience somewhere different from where we live. The culture, the history, the food. Thus, to go to Rome and eat at McDonalds is totally contradictory, and perhaps even morally suspect.

I believe as tourists we have a personal obligation to preserve the place we are visiting for future tourists. This means acting responsibly in our purchasing decisions, in the way we treat historic sites, and in the way we interact with local communities.

READ ALSO: Overtourism in Barcelona – are the battle lines drawn?

It can be difficult for us as tourists – amidst the harried nature of travel and often opaque nature of corporate ownership – to make responsible decisions during our trip. But simple guidelines (such as these provided by the Cape Town Tourist Board) provide awareness and a framework to help us make sustainable choices.

In the coming years, as global tourism grows, I'm convinced we're going to see increased awareness of the notion that tourism carries with it moral obligations. And I welcome that.

Private Tourism Companies Are Part of the Solution

As the owner of a tourism business, I love shining a light on places like Brunells. I love giving them recognition, and I love giving them money. I'm also driven by a deep desire to help people better understand their world through its complex local traditions, delicious cuisines and fascinating stories. And I believe destinations can benefit from tourism – as long as private tourism businesses like mine understand their obligations and take action on them.

At Devour Tours we work with local, often family-run establishments, to ensure that our guests have a rich, local experience, but also to ensure that the price of each ticket is filtered back into the local economy. And in a country where there remains a strong cash economy, we pay sales tax on 100 percent of our earnings and pay all our providers above board. Anything else would be doing a disservice to the country we claim to promote and support.

But the money is the easy part. Beyond the money, there are more difficult questions that tourism companies must ask themselves in order to ensure they're acting responsibly. What is the impact we have on the fabric of the neighbourhood we offer experiences in? What is the maximum group size we can bring into these streets or these establishments, without detracting from the rhythms and daily lives of the locals? Are we supporting this establishment and co-existing with locals, or are we changing it and driving the locals away?

READ ALSO: Why Barcelona ISN'T the travel destination to avoid in 2018

As owners and managers of tourism companies we must continually ask ourselves these questions. Sometimes the answers are slippery – a matter of interpretation or degree. But only by consistently analysing our businesses and our actions, and making changes where necessary, can we honestly say that we work to serve the local community and economy.

And to be clear, the above does not mean becoming an NGO or being anti-business. Tourism companies that work hard to create a positive impact on local communities, and are able to communicate that work to potential clients, will increasingly reap the financial rewards.

Public Bodies Are Part of the Solution

This is the hard one for me. I am a tourist and I own a tourism business. But I've never worked in the public sector. I'm going to need your ideas and thoughts here.

I've heard people say city councils should help save traditional businesses when they're under threat. What would that look like? Is it right? We have to remember that they are businesses – for profit establishments like any other. If they receive public money, does that mean they become a museum? And who decides what businesses are historic or iconic enough to be saved.

I don't know what the model is, but I do think city councils – along with the many obligations they face – have an obligation to preserve the cultural integrity of the city they manage. They have an obligation to prevent their city turning into a city like any other (for locals more so than for tourists). There is nothing wrong with Starbucks per se, but a world of Starbucks isn't a very interesting world. I would argue that it is negligent for a city to allow this to happen to itself.

Again, like for tourists or tourism businesses, the answers are not clear cut, and there are many competing factors. But like tourists or tourism businesses, local bodies cannot turn a blind eye to the fact that they must be part of the solution.

Need a Breakfast Tip For This Weekend?

So, this Sunday is the last Sunday Brunells will serve its delicious chocolate to locals and tourists alike. If you're Barcelona, and you don't have any breakfast plans, please do swing by and buy a pastry from Carles, or just say hi. At this very challenging time, you'll be helping his cash flow and certainly his spirits.

Brunells' address is the corner of Carrer de Montcada and Carrer de la Princesa.

James Blick is the co-founder of Devour Tours and hosts the YouTube channel Spain Revealed


The architect trying to finish the Sagrada Familia after 138 years

Jordi Faulí is the seventh chief architect of Barcelona's iconic Sagrada Familia since Antoni Gaudi began work on the basilica in 1883, and he had been expected to oversee its long-awaited completion.

The architect trying to finish the Sagrada Familia after 138 years
Jordi Faulí is the seventh architect director of the Sagrada Familia following Antoni Gaudi and, for many, the one destined to finish it. Photo: Lluis Gene/AFP

But the pandemic has delayed efforts to finish this towering architectural masterpiece, which has been under construction for nearly 140 years, and it is no longer clear whether Faulí will still be in charge when it is finally done.

“I would like to be here for many more years, of course, but that’s in God’s hands,” says Faulí, 62, a wry smile on his lips.

He was just 31 when he joined the architectural team as a local in 1990 — the same age as Gaudi when the innovative Catalan architect began building his greatest work in the late 19th century, a project that would take up four decades of his life.

“When I arrived, only three of these columns were built and they were only 10 metres (33 feet) high,” he explains from a mezzanine in the main nave.

“I was lucky enough to design and see the construction of the entire interior, then the sacristy and now the main towers.”

When finished, the ornate cathedral which was designed by Gaudi will have 18 towers, the tallest of which will reach 172 metres into the air.

READ ALSO: Pandemic to delay completion fate for Barcelona’s Sagrada Familia

The second-highest tower, which is 138 metres tall and dedicated to the Virgin Mary, will be officially inaugurated on Wednesday with the illumination of the gigantic 5.5-tonne star crowning its highest point.

It is the tallest of the nine completed towers and the first to be inaugurated since 1976.

The long-awaited completion of Barcelona’s Sagrada Familia will no longer happen in 2026 because the coronavirus epidemic has curtailed its construction and frustrated funding, basilica officials admitted. Photo: Pau Barrena/AFP
Construction halted by Civil War

In 2019, the Sagrada Familia welcomed 4.7 million visitors, making it Barcelona’s most visited monument.

But it was forced to close in March 2020 as the Covid-19 pandemic took hold, with its doors staying shut for almost a year.

This year, there have been barely 764,000 visitors, municipal figures show.

And as entry tickets are the main source of funding for the ongoing building works, the goal of finishing the basilica by 2026 to mark the 100th anniversary of Gaudi’s death — he was run over by a tram — has been abandoned.

“We can’t give any estimate as to when it will be finished because we don’t know how visitor numbers will recover in the coming years,” Faulí says.

It is far from the first time Gaudi’s masterpiece has faced such challenges.

During the Spanish Civil War in the late 1930s, construction work stopped and many of Gaudi’s design plans and models were destroyed.

For critics, this major loss means they do not view what was built later as Gaudi’s work, despite the research carried out by his successors.

READ ALSO: Central spire will make the Sagrada Familia tallest church in the world

UNESCO, the United Nations’ cultural agency, has only granted World Heritage status to the Sagrada Familia’s crypt and one of its facades, both of which were built during Gaudi’s lifetime.

But Faulí insists the project remains faithful to what Gaudi had planned as it is based on the meticulous study of photographs, drawings and testimony from the late Modernist architect.

UNESCO, the United Nations’ cultural agency, has only granted World Heritage status to the Sagrada Familia’s crypt and one of its facades, both of which were built during Gaudi’s lifetime. Photo: Lluis Gene/AFP

Some local opposition

Nominated chief architect of the project in 2012, Faulí took over at the head of a team of 27 architects and more than 100 builders.

Today, there are five architects and some 16 builders working to finish the Sagrada Familia.

“It is a lot of responsibility because it’s an iconic project, which many people have an opinion about,” says Faulí.

Building such a vast monument which draws huge numbers of visitors is not welcomed by everyone, with some arguing that the hoards of visiting tourists are destroying the area.

Many also oppose plans to build an enormous staircase leading up to the main entrance, the construction of which will involve the demolition of several buildings, forcing hundreds to relocate.

“My life is here and they want to throw me out,” says one sign on a balcony near the Sagrada Familia.

Faulí said he understands their concerns and wants to find “fair solutions” through dialogue.

And if he could ask Gaudi one question? Faulí pauses to reflect for a few moments.

“I would ask him about his underlying intentions and what feelings he wanted to communicate through his architecture,” he says.