How some Barcelona hotels are getting creative to survive as coronavirus keeps tourists away

Sergi Pino recently moved to Barcelona, but rather than renting a flat, he's staying at a hotel which has been forced to get creative to compensate for the absence of tourists.

How some Barcelona hotels are getting creative to survive as coronavirus keeps tourists away
Photos: Pau Barrena / AFP

Hugely popular with international visitors, the city has seen most of its hotels close as the pandemic has kept tourists away, and the few that remain open have had to repurpose themselves to stay afloat.

Some have adapted their premises to suit telecommuters, while others have dropped the price for long-term stays in order to compete with the traditional rental market.

Still others are offering a deluxe experience to residents who, unable to travel, get to play the tourist in their own city.

At his new “home” in the Gallery Hotel, Pino not only has his room, but enjoys the use of the gym, the pool, the spa and an open space for teleworking all for 900 euros ($1,080) a month.   

“There's more space, I'm happy and focused on my work,” he says, sitting in front of a screen in the shared working space wearing a grey suit and white trainers. “Nothing bothers me.”

More affordable than a flat

A former basketball player who is two metres (six foot, five inches) tall, Pino used to commute from his home 70 kilometres (43 miles) away.    

But when he looked for a flat, he realised that staying in a hotel would be more affordable.

And he's not alone: among other long-term “guests” at the hotel are couples whose homes are being renovated and people who were going to move abroad but found their relocation put on hold because of the pandemic.   

“We have eight people living with us and we're about to take in another 24 reservations,” says Marta Golobardes, director general of the Gallery group, which includes hotels in the southern resort of Malaga and Mallorca in the
Balearic Isles.   

Shuttered by the pandemic in March, the hotel reopened in October after being refitted for distance working with shared working spaces and rooms converted into offices with a desk instead of a bed for those who cannot
concentrate at home.   

Although they are making just a fraction of what they would have done in a normal year, the income goes some way to compensating for the losses incurred by the pandemic, “providing the staff with jobs, and meaning less money lost”,
Golobardes says.   

Several hotels have taken a similar approach, offering rooms for as little as €600 euros ($730), which is cheaper than renting a studio in Barcelona.   

Others are offering a taste of luxury, with one hotel, the Ohla, promising a free overnight stay for those paying to have dinner in its Michelin-starred restaurant.

The Detroit effect?

The pandemic has caused “tragedy” in a city that last year welcomed 9.5 million visitors, says Jordi Mestre, head of the Gremio de Hoteles representing the hotel and tourist accommodation sector in the Barcelona area.

More than 75 percent of hotels remain closed and the few that are open barely manage an occupancy rate of 10 percent, leaving many on the verge of bankruptcy and attracting vulture funds.

This year, only 1.5 million visitors have stayed in hotels in the city, 12 percent of whose wealth normally relies on tourism.

In the local press, some are already speaking of Barcelona as “the Detroit of tourism”, referring to the fate of what was once among America's wealthiest cities as the capital of its car industry.

“I don't think it's the same situation, although it's true that the sector is going through a very, very complicated time,” said Remei Gomez, who runs the five-star Claris hotel in central Barcelona.

Although in July the Claris achieved occupancy rates as high as 50 percent, fresh pockets of infection swiftly ended that, leaving the hotel more silent and empty than ever.

“At this time of day, the restaurant would normally be full of people having breakfast, with customers sunbathing outside on the patio and a lot of people in the reception area. Under normal conditions, the hotel would be full of life, but now, sadly, it is very quiet,” she says.   

Outside, bellboys are loading a suitcase into the boot of a car belonging to one of its few guests, a German businessman who says he knows the city well.   

“It's really strange, I went to the Ramblas this morning and it was almost empty,” said Matt Wittberg, 48, after handing his key back at reception.   

“I've never seen it like that, it was a bit scary.”

By AFP's Daniel Bosque




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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.