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Tourism in Barcelona: how much is too much?

With 30 million visitors expected to come this year, some locals feel the city is about to reach the tipping point


09 August 2017 08:09 PM


Alan Ruiz Terol | Barcelona

How much tourism is too much? As Barcelona is set to complete another record-breaking year, with more than 30 million visitors expected to come according to the city council, many locals feel the city is about to reach the tipping point.

The increase in tourism has been exponential since the 1990s, but has recently accelerated due in part to terrorist attacks and political turmoil in other destinations. The number of nights spent in a hotel, now above 19 million, is five times that of 1990. The number of international passengers who arrive at Barcelona Airport, now more than 32 million per year, is nine times higher. Add 2.7 million cruise passengers, tourists staying in other Catalan towns nearby but also visiting the city, and over 10 million overnight stays in tourist apartments via online platforms like Airbnb.

This has been historically framed as a success story, but residents are starting to disagree.

Against this kind of tourism

Tourism has just become the city’s highest ranked problem according to Barcelona locals, a survey by the city council found. For the first time, more people think the capacity for providing tourist service is being exceeded than those in favor of attracting more visitors.

Over the past few weeks, anti-tourism activists have vandalized bikes in order to protest against a “kind of tourism” which they claim is pushing locals out of their homes. They also slashed the tires of a bus full of tourists and spray-painted the windscreen with the phrase “Tourism kills neighborhoods.”

  • “Protesting against tourism should never entail intimidating people and destroying public equipment”

    Ada Colau · Barcelona mayor

The perpetrators of the different attacks were members of Arran and Endavant, two organizations related to the anti-capitalist CUP (Popular Unity Candidacy), a minor partner of the pro-independence government in Catalonia.

“The problem is not tourism, but the kind of tourism,” Arran said in a press release. In addition to other demands, they advocated for banning Airbnb, expropriating hotels, and improving the working conditions of the sector, as well as raising taxes on companies in the tourism industry and using the money to diversify the economy.

What is the city council doing?

Barcelona's mayor, Ada Colau, has condemned the attack and says the city council will report it. “Protesting against tourism should never entail intimidating people and destroying public equipment,” she said in a tweet.

Colau herself has been very critical of tourism. The mayor, who came to power in 2015 and previously was the leader of the grassroots anti-evictions association PAH, has made herself quite unpopular with the industry due to her attempts to put regulation on place. Last year, the city council’s plenary passed a law to curtail the number of visitors arriving in the city by limiting the number of occupancies available in hotels and freezing the construction of new ones.

Moreover, the city council sued Airbnb for €600,000 for publishing ads of non-licensed apartments. There are currently 9,657 licensed apartments in the city, offering 58,911 places to stay (a third of the city’s total). The city council has appointed one hundred inspectors to investigate unlicensed apartments. So far, more than 2,000 have been found and are being forced to close.

Some claim that tourist apartments are the reason that rental prices are skyrocketing in the city: rather than rent out their apartment to locals who stay all year round, some landlords prefer to welcome tourists who will pay more and stay less time. This paves the way for the gentrification of the city, especially in the most touristy neighborhoods, as locals who can’t afford the rental prices anymore have to leave their homes.

Last year, rents in Barcelona increased 9% on average, and in many neighborhoods the prices are far above 1,000 euros per month.

What tourists bring (and leave)

But not everybody agrees with Colau and her endeavor to regulate tourism. Alberto Fernández Díaz, a Barcelona councilor and member of the Catalan wing of Spain’s governing PP (People’s Party), criticized Colau for fostering “turismefòbia” (tourism-phobia). Tourism is an economic activity that creates jobs and accounts for 14% of the GDP, he claimed.

There are nearly 50,000 people in Barcelona who work in the tourism industry, according to the city council. The figures include jobs in accommodation services, food and drink services and travel agencies and tourist operators. However, 84% of these jobs are temporary.

Catalonia is Spain’s leading region when it comes to the money spent by tourists. In the first semester of the year, international tourists spent €8.2 billion, a 15% increase compared to the same period in 2016.