Barcelona hope for the return of mass tourism

The Catalan capital suffers from a cruel lack of tourists. While city officials are calling for vacationers to return, critics of mass tourism are struggling to make their voices heard.

City officials want tourists to return, while critics struggle to make their voices heard.

Typically, there are so many tourists at the Sagrada Familia that it’s almost impossible to take a picture without someone stepping into your frame. On this particular autumn day, however, there are few tourists in front of the famous basilica whose facade was designed by the architect Antoni Gaudi. In fact, there are even tickets available on the day. “Normally, that never happens,” says the man at the ticket office, who is visibly bored.

With nearly 5 million visitors a year, the Sagrada Família was Barcelona’s most popular attraction before the coronavirus the pandemic hit. It was also the symbol of the rise of mass tourism in the city. 2019 saw a record 14 million holidaymakers visit the city – more than ever.

Between 2010 and 2019, the number of passengers passing through the airport increased from just under 30 million to 53 million. But meanwhile, much of the local population has become resentful of the rapid rise in tourism, leading to regular protests.

Now, however, the situation has changed: the souvenir shop in front of the Sagrada Familia is holding a jumble sale. “Everything for €5,” reads a sign on the door. A block further, Jose Lorenzo has been running a small restaurant that has been in operation for 20 years.

It’s lunch time, and before the pandemic, all the tables would have been occupied by this point. Now, however, there is only one person slowly sipping a beer at the bar. Lorenzo says the more tourism, the better for the economy.

“It’s a positive thing when people come – it means they like it here,” he says.

Unusual tranquility in the Gothic Quarter

An unusual calm has also descended on the old town. Before the pandemic, masses of vacationers strolled through the Gothic Quarter any day of the week. Now it is even possible to walk alone in one of the narrow streets and hear the echo of your own footsteps.

The consequences of months without tourists are painfully evident across Barcelona: a number of shops have even closed in one of the city’s most important tourist streets.

“The situation is critical after so many months without real [tourism] activity,” Manel Casals, managing director of the Barcelona Hotel Association, told DW, adding that 40% of hotels remain closed. Normally, an average of 60,000 people stay in the city’s hotels each day during the summer, but this year there were only 13,000, he said. The industry has suffered losses of 2.7 billion euros ($3.1 billion) since the start of the pandemic.

“We need to get back to pre-pandemic tourist numbers as soon as possible,” says Casals.

Barcelona needs ‘decentralization of tourism’
“The debate on mass tourism in Barcelona is exaggerated”, defiantly launches Xavier Marce, director of tourism. “We don’t have a problem with the number of holidaymakers, but with the way they are distributed in the city.”

In Barcelona, ​​he says, the sights are mostly in a very small area. This leads to conflicts with residents and unwanted developments, such as the disappearance of traditional retail, he says. In the historic center there are now entire neighborhoods with only souvenir shops, restaurants and hotels.

“What we need is the decentralization of tourism,” says Marce.

The Department of Tourism has launched several projects for this purpose. For example, holidaymakers can now use the Check Barcelona app to see how crowded the most important sights are at any given time. If the lines in front of the Sagrada Família are particularly long, visitors can simply choose to go elsewhere.

The tourist bus, on the other hand, which previously only covered typical attractions, now also passes through neighborhoods almost completely off the beaten track for tourists – such as the former industrial district of Poblenou, which has turned into a trendy and artistic. during the last years.

Activists are losing support, but the fight against tourism is not over
Pere Marine, one of the city’s most vocal critics of mass tourism, has lived in this area for many years. Marine belongs to the powerful association of inhabitants of the city and organized many demonstrations.

The pandemic, however, has somewhat taken the breath away from activists. They had to cancel a planned demonstration at Parc Guell due to lack of participants. Many have suddenly become painfully aware of their reliance on tourism as a business, which accounts for around 13% of the city’s GDP.

“Everyone knows at least someone who works in tourism who has had a hard time,” says Marine.

However, for Marine, the fight is far from over. According to him, the tolerable threshold has been crossed in this record year of 2019. He does not believe that the problem will be solved by simply redirecting the flow of tourists. “Why do tourists come here? They want to see Camp Nou, Parc Guell, Sagrada Familia,” he says.

He believes there is no way to reduce the number of beds in hotels and other accommodation. “We want hotels to be converted into social housing,” he says. This would not only mean less accommodation for tourists, but it would also help solve the problem of the lack of affordable accommodation in Barcelona.

No plans to reduce the number of beds

But that’s unlikely to happen: although the city has strictly regulated the approval of new tourist accommodation, there are currently no plans to reduce bed capacity. On the contrary: further growth is possible in neighborhoods outside the city centre. Marce, head of the tourism department, puts it bluntly: “It is not our objective to reduce the number of tourists”.

However, he says efforts are being made to upgrade hotels, which will drive up prices. “The number of tourists then automatically decreases,” he told DW.

Manel Casals from the hotel association is not interested in reducing the number of visitors. Instead, he says, more effort should be made to attract business travelers who spend more and don’t crowd the streets of the historic center. But he also realizes that it will not be an easy task. “There is only one Sagrada Familia in the world,” he says. “Everyone who comes to Barcelona wants to see him.”

And there’s at least one upside to that: the ongoing construction of the basilica has been funded primarily through ticket sales. In fact, the lack of tourists now means its completion has had to be postponed. Work was originally scheduled to be completed in 2026, the 100th anniversary of Antoni Gaudi’s death, 144 years after construction began in 1882.

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