Barcelona hopes for the return of mass tourism

Typically, there are so many tourists at the Sagrada Familia that it’s almost impossible to take a photo without someone walking in your frame. On this particular autumn day, however, there are few tourists in front of the famous church with its facade designed by architect Antoni Gaudi. In fact, there are even tickets for the same day. “Normally, that never happens,” explains 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 pandemic struck. It was also the symbol of the rise of mass tourism in the city. 2019 saw a record 14 million vacationers visit the city, more than ever. Between 2010 and 2019, the number of passengers passing through the airport fell from just under 30 million to 53 million. But during this time, much of the local population has become irritated by the rapid rise in tourism, which has led to regular protests.

Now, however, the situation has changed: the souvenir shop in front of the Sagrada Familia is holding a clearance sale. “Everything for five euros” reads a sign on the door. One street further, Jose Lorenzo runs a small restaurant that has been in existence for 20 years. It’s lunchtime, and before the pandemic all tables would have been occupied at this point. Now, however, there is only one person slowly sipping a beer at the bar. According to Lorenzo, 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 also fell on the old town. Before the pandemic, masses of vacationers strolled through the Gothic Quarter any day of the week. Now it may even happen that you are walking alone on one of the narrow streets and hear the echo of your own footsteps. The consequences of months without tourists are painfully obvious to observe across Barcelona: a number of shops have even closed their doors on one of the city’s most important tourist streets.

“The situation is critical after so many months without any real (tourist) activity,” said Manel Casals, general manager of the Barcelona Hotel Association. DW. Forty percent of hotels remain closed, he added. Normally, an average of 60,000 people stay in hotels in the city every day during the summer, but this year there were only 13,000, he said, adding that the industry had 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 quickly as possible,” Casals said.

Many sites in a small area

“The debate on mass tourism in Barcelona is exaggerated,” protested Xavier Marce, director of tourism. “We don’t have a problem with the number of vacationers, but with the way they are distributed around the city.” In Barcelona, ​​he says, tourist spots are mostly found in a very small area. This leads to conflicts with residents and unwanted developments, such as the demise of traditional retail, he says. In the historic center there are whole neighborhoods with only souvenir shops, restaurants and hotels now. “What we need is the decentralization of tourism,” says Marce.

The tourism department has launched several projects in this direction. For example, vacationers can now use the Check Barcelona app to see how crowded the most important sites are at any given time. If the lines in front of the Sagrada Família are particularly long, visitors can simply choose to go elsewhere in town. The tourist bus, which previously only covered typical attractions, now also passes through neighborhoods almost completely off the beaten track for tourists – like the old industrial district of Poblenou, which has turned into a trendy arts district. during the last years.

Activists lose their support

Father Marine, one of the most severe detractors of mass tourism, has lived in this area for many years. Marine belongs to the powerful association of residents of the city and has organized many demonstrations. The pandemic, however, took the activists’ breath somewhat. They had to cancel a planned event at Parc Guell for lack of participants. Many suddenly became aware of how they have historically depended on tourism as a business, which accounts for around 13% of the city’s GDP. “Everyone knows at least someone who is employed in tourism and who has gone through difficult times,” says Marine.

All the same, for Marine, the fight is far from over. In his opinion, the tolerable threshold was crossed in this record year of 2019. He does not think 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 that 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 that there would be fewer places for tourists, but it would also help address the lack of affordable accommodation in Barcelona.

No plans to reduce the number of beds

But that is 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 center. The head of the tourism department, Marce, puts it bluntly: “It is not our goal to reduce the number of tourists. However, he says efforts are being made to improve hotels, which will lead to higher prices. “The number of tourists then automatically decreases”, he says. DW.

Manel Casals of the hotel association does not want to reduce the number of visitors. Instead, he says, more should be done to attract business travelers who spend more and don’t clutter 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 it.”

And there is at least one advantage to that: the ongoing construction of the Basilica of the Sagrada Familia has been funded primarily through ticket sales. In fact, the lack of tourists has now meant its completion has had to be postponed. The work was to be completed by 2026, the 100th anniversary of Antoni Gaudi’s death, 144 years after construction began in 1882.


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