Left without visitors, tour guides call to rethink Barcelona’s tourism model

With foreign travelers down by 80%, some see a ‘unique opportunity’ to challenge mass tourism

A group of tourists looking a souvenirs in Tarragona on July 28, 2020 (by Roger Segura)
A group of tourists looking a souvenirs in Tarragona on July 28, 2020 (by Roger Segura) / ACN

Alan Ruiz Terol | Barcelona

December 5, 2020 12:30 PM

In a year when the coronavirus pandemic disrupted global travel, Barcelona locals have been able to see what the city’s perennially packed old quarters look like without tourists—in some cases for the first time in their lives. 

Calls to transform the city’s mass tourism model are growing louder, finding unlikely allies along the way, including tour guides.

"There are now more meetings than ever to rethink our tourism model, especially since Covid," said to Catalan News Resi Nickl, the secretary of AGUICAT, the largest association of licensed tour guides both in Catalonia and in Spain.

'Room for everybody'

“We vindicate small groups, low levels of acoustic pollution, trying to organize the old town in such a way that there is room for everybody," said Nickl. "We're also residents, not only guides who live from tourism. So we want to create a harmonious living situation between those who live here and those who come to visit."

Attracting over 12 million visitors every year, the number of foreign tourists arriving in Barcelona has fallen by more than 80% since the March lockdown. 

According to the Catalan government, the grim year for the tourist sector cost the Catalan economy around 25 billion euros, a GDP reduction between 1.5 and 2.9%, and the loss of approximately 90,000 jobs.

Tourism accounts for 12% of GDP

Following the 2008 financial crisis, tourism was one of the sectors that helped the economic recovery, accounting for more than 12% of the Catalan GDP and giving a boost to other sectors along the way. However, the pandemic has exposed its fragility.

"While it’s true that in the face of falling tourist activity, now the emergency makes us react saying ‘Let them come, we’re not rethinking anything, we are just trying to save the season’. I believe that is legitimate, but I think it would be much more important right now to lay down for the foundations of a new tourism. It is now or never,” the professor of tourism at the University of Girona, José Antonio Donaire, said in an interview with the Catalan TV3 broadcaster.

"It’s not a matter of attracting more tourism or less, but better," said the Catalan administration's Tourism Agency (ACT) in a written interview to Catalan News. They call for a "strong tourism sector", while seeking "sustainability" and "decentralization"—meaning to not only bring tourists to Barcelona, but all around the country.

Unlicensed tour guides

As an association of licensed tour guides, AGUICAT defends that officially-recognized guides do a better job of presenting the city to foreigners and contributing to the local economy, and criticize the Catalan executive for not doing enough to clamp down on unofficial companies.

"We don't want huge groups of 70 people following a guide with an umbrella and loudspeakers through the little streets of the old town," said Nickl, who accuses free tour companies operating in the city center of "occupying" the streets and "expelling the neighbors", as well as creating a "black market".

While the Catalan government says tip-based tours "have nothing to do" with the tourism model they defend, it stresses that European regulations liberalized the sector and unlicensed guides can operate freely.