With the Catalonian city hosting five times as many visitors as 20 years ago, there is a feeling among some locals that the financial benefits are not worth the hassle (bother, nuisance, trouble).
As many as nine million visitors are expected in Barcelona this year, crammed into a few small areas of a city of 1.6 million inhabitants, more than five times the number who visited 20 years ago. With the weak euro attracting ever more tourists, and as many as 2.5 million visitors disembarking from cruise ships a year, residents are feeling besieged.
“People push us, give us dirty looks and make nasty remarks when we’re showing tourists around,” said Mari Pau Alonso, president of Barcelona’s Association of Professional Tourist Guides.
Even Jordi Clos, head of the city’s hoteliers’ association, which wants to see visitor numbers rise to 10 million, says there is an “urgent need” to make citizens more sympathetic to tourists, given the “sense of being overwhelmed” that people have experienced in recent years.
“If we don’t want to end up like Venice, we will have to put some kind of limit in Barcelona,” said Ada Colau, the city’s new mayor, shortly after she was elected in May. She is proposing a moratorium on new hotels and licenses for apartments rented to tourists.
A survey for the Exceltur tourist group revealed that there are now twice as many beds available in tourist apartments – some 138,000 – as there are in hotels.
Tourist flats offer a more attractive and economic deal to visitors, and their owners can expect rents at least 125% higher than they would receive from long-term tenants. While many are let through large online organizations, such as Airbnb, others are offered by homeowners trying to make ends meet during Spain’s prolonged recession.
Tourists spend 25m euros (£18m) a day in the city, and the industry accounts for 15% of Barcelona’s GDP and about 120,000 jobs. No one wants to drive tourists away, says Colau, but if the city becomes a “theme park” people will stop coming.
Ciutat Vella, the heart of old Barcelona and one of the most popular districts among tourists, has lost 13,000 residents in eight years, driven out by high rents and the relentless noise of tourism. Many areas, such as the famous Las Ramblas or the area around the Sagrada Familia church, are in effect no-go areas for residents.
Colau suggests encouraging tourists to visit other parts of the city, but visitors are drawn to the old city, the Antoni Gaudí buildings and Barceloneta’s beaches. The city is the Mediterranean cruise capital and ships, some carrying thousands of passengers, have a huge impact. Passengers are disgorged at the city’s main sights and then leave, having bought little more than a souvenir and a bottle of water during their time ashore.
Their social impact is seen by many as hugely outweighing their financial contribution, leading some, Clos among them, to suggest a tax on cruises. So far (thus far = hasta ahora), the 7m euros annual tax on hotels has been spent on promoting tourism, but the Catalan parliament is now considering using it to alleviate the industry’s effects.
Francesc Muñoz, professor of urbanization at Barcelona’s Universitat Autònoma, goes further. “Why can’t hotel chains finance schools and nurseries?” he asks. “Why can’t cruise companies pay for roadworks?” That way, he argues, residents would see some palpable return for putting up with the tourist invasion.