Barcelona's Mayor to Tourists: Go Away

Mayor-elect Ada Colau worries that the tourist hot spot could "end up like Venice"

Visitors sunbathe at La Marbella beach in Barcelona.

Visitors sunbathe at La Marbella beach in Barcelona.

Photographer: David Ramos/Bloomberg

Barcelona boasts dazzling architecture, fabulous food, abundant sunshine, and a stylish, laid-back vibe. No wonder a record 7.6 million people are expected to visit Barcelona this year. It's now the third most visited city in Europe, behind London and Paris, and ranks No. 12 worldwide, according to the MasterCard Global Destination Cities Index released on June 3.

Barcelona Mayor-elect Ada Colau Ballano doesn't think this is good news. Colau, who leads a coalition of environmentalists and social activists that won municipal elections in May, says the tourism surge is making the city uninhabitable for its 1.7 million residents.

For much of the year, the city's Las Ramblas pedestrian zone and labyrinthine Gothic Quarter are bursting with tourists, including tens of thousands of passengers who disembark daily from cruise ships. Vendors at the historic La Boqueria market complain that gawking tourists prevent locals from buying their groceries. A 2014 documentary about Barcelona's tense relationship with visitors, Bye Bye Barcelona, warned that the city was becoming "a theme park."

Barcelona Mayor to Tourists: Go Away

Local authorities have tried to control the swarms. They require time-restricted entry tickets for such top attractions as Gaudi's Parc Güell and the Sagrada Familia cathedral and forbid tour groups from entering La Boqueria during peak shopping times. But Colau wants to go even further. She told the newspaper El Pais on June 1 that she will place a moratorium on approving new hotel rooms and short-term rentals and will develop a plan to ensure that Barcelona doesn't "end up like Venice." 

Venice has seen its population plummet from 180,000 in the 1960s to less than 60,000 today, as more than 2 million visitors inundate the city every year. "Venice is a lost cause," a place where ordinary people can no longer live and raise families, says Elizabeth Becker, author of the 2013 book, Overbooked: The Exploding Business of Travel and Tourism.

Barcelona's situation isn't yet that extreme. For one thing, it's much bigger than Venice. Public-opinion surveys show that residents are overwhelmingly pro-tourism, except for those living in a few heavily trafficked neighborhoods, says Greg Richards, a professor at the NHTV Breda University in the Netherlands who has studied Barcelona tourism. "There is no sign of a tipping point" at which the costs of tourism could outweigh its benefits, he says. Visitors spend $13.9 billion annually in Barcelona, and the tourist industry supports an estimated 100,000 jobs. The local hotel owners' association wants to increase the supply of hotel rooms by 30 percent over the next few years.

Still, locals are complaining about everything from noise and litter to rising real estate prices. In the Gràcia neighborhood, protesters recently occupied a building to prevent its conversion into a hotel. The seaside neighborhood of Barceloneta erupted in protests last summer over an explosion of short-term rentals that residents said were turning apartment buildings into "youth hostels." These neighborhood groups have found an ally in Colau, an activist who led protests over mass evictions after the collapse of Spain's real-estate market.

Until recently, Barcelona was considered a tourism success story. "Barcelona cleverly used the 1992 Olympics as a springboard to refresh its image and renew the urban infrastructure," economists from Ca' Foscari University of Venice wrote in a 2008 analysis that praised the city for leveraging its cultural heritage to attract visitors. Barcelona now "is on the map of 'cool cities,' with staggering growth rates in international tourism and a very positive image in the media and among cultural trendsetters," they wrote.

Barcelona's cruise-ship port, Europe's largest, has been a major contributor to the boom. Cruise operators have spent tens of millions over the past year to expand and upgrade the port, which now handles more than 2.5 million passengers a year. Cruise-ship passengers, though, don't contribute much to the local economy because they sleep and eat most meals aboard ship, says author Becker. Venice moved last year to ban large cruise ships from entering its port, although the ban remains under review by the government.

Becker says Mayor-elect Colau could use targeted measures to limit damage caused by tourism, without making the city appear unwelcoming to visitors. Such actions might include curbs on cruise-ship arrivals, tougher regulation of short-term apartment rentals, and restrictions on retail activity—for example, banning souvenir sales inside La Boqueria market. "She has a lot of levers at her disposal," Becker says.

Some Barcelona residents, though, are blaming tourism for gentrification and the displacement of locally owned shops by global retail chains—trends that are largely unrelated to rising numbers of visitors, Richards says.  The new mayor might be able to protect some neighborhoods from being overrun by tourists, he adds, but she can't protect all of them. "You can't remove tourism. You can't build another Sagrada Familia and put it somewhere else." In the end, he says, "People who are bothered by having hordes of tourists around will probably move away to other neighborhoods."

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