‘Too much tourism’ on agenda at Madrid travel fair

World tourism is going from strength to strength, but as the industry gathers in Madrid for one of its largest fairs, the negative impact of its success on local residents is in the spotlight.

'Too much tourism' on agenda at Madrid travel fair
Photo: AFP

Chronic overcrowding in cities like Venice and Barcelona is sparking an angry backlash from locals, who complain that a surge in visitors is making life intolerable.

Locals complain that home-sharing sites like Airbnb are driving up rents in picturesque city centres, forcing locals out, and they voice concerns over the environmental impact of cruise liners.

“If there are too many people, if people don't want to come, if those who live here are upset and spend their days protesting, that affects us all. It is not sustainable,” the head of Barcelona-based tourist firm Advanced Leisure Services, Angel Diaz, told AFP.

The issue is a central focus at the Fitur international tourism fair, which got under way Wednesday in Madrid with 10,000 exhibitors and an expected 250,000 visitors.

READ ALSO: Has tourism in Spain reached its peak? 

On the programme at the five-day event are several conferences dedicated to combatting overtourism and developing responsible, sustainable alternatives.   

The fair showcases a group of villages in Portugal that stage cultural events outside of the peak tourist season to avoid saturation in the summer.   

“Tourism brings great benefits. But the (local) community also has to receive those benefits,” said Gloria Guevera, the head of the World Travel and Tourism Council (WTTC), which represents the private tourism sector globally.

'Going nowhere'

She cited examples of pro-active approaches to overtourism such as Croatia's walled medieval town of Dubrovnik, which staggers arrival times for cruise ships.

Another is Amsterdam's smartphone app that allows tourists to check on queue lengths at the city's popular museums in real time so they can plan to avoid crowds.

Barcelona's iconic Sagrada Familia church, the city's most visited tourist attraction, has also turned to technology to better control visitor flows to the site.

Sensors were installed at the site in 2016 monitor mobile phone signals, allowing local officials to analyse the flow of people at church and then change visiting hours to the Sagrada Familia and introduce cheaper tickets during less busy hours.

Fitur has set up an “observatory” of sustainable tourism called FiturNext to highlight such examples.

“If we multiply the number of visitors by four and that's it, we are going nowhere,” said Javier Creus of FiturNext.   

“It is not so much a question of saying 'come', but something between 'come back' and 'stay' because a tourist who wants to come back will want to preserve places,” he added.

Surging tourist numbers

The number of international tourist arrivals rose by six percent last year to hit a record 1.4 billion, according to an estimate published Monday by the World Tourism Organization.

The WTO had forecast in 2010 that international tourist arrivals would not hit the 1.4 billion mark until 2020 — but on Monday it said that stronger economic growth, more affordable air travel and easier visa regimes around the world had boosted the market.

The Madrid-based UN body may now revise upwards its forecast of 1.8 billion international tourist arrivals in 2030, WTO secretary-general Zurab Pololikashvili said Monday.

Mayors from Spanish seaside resorts which have become symbols of mass tourism such as Benidorm — famous for its stretch of beachfront high-rises — will gather at a roundtable on Thursday to discuss responsible tourism and ways to avoid overburdening locals.

“Without a doubt, there is a change. We have never talked so much about too much tourism,” Claudio Milano, an anthropologist and lecturer at Barcelona's Ostelea School of Tourism, told AFP.

Tourism accounts for 10.4 percent of global GDP, and for one in 10 of all jobs on the planet, according to the WTTC.

By AFP's  Adrien Vicente 

OPINION: Tourism is a solution, not a problem


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.