Barcelona is trying to avoid limiting the growth of its tourism industry, yet again, balancing an economic reboot and residents’ needs. Failure might turn it into fresh territory for moving ahead with stricter policies as it looks to put its overtourism past behind it.
An innovative campaign by the Turisme de Barcelona Consortium, aimed at American travelers, recently became viral by turning Antoni Gaudí’s Casa Batlló into an NFT (non-fungible token), auctioned by Christie’s for $1.4 million.
The idea was to capture “better quality” tourism and fully recover activity this summer. The city is on track to return to 2019’s record of 12 million visitors and 33 million overnight stays. The international airport received 1.4 million visitors in May, 21 percent below 2019.
But locals who had retaken the city’s public spaces while borders were closed during the pandemic, are not happy, and fear the excessive noise, illegal accommodations, crime and littering will take over Barcelona once again. In other words, the city that became the symbol of overtourism may be right back where it was.
“International promotion is great, but we should aim to decentralize tourism with new attractions and by reducing seasonality,” said Esteve Dot Jutglà, professor at Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona’s (UAB) Tourism and Hotel Management School.
Manel Casals, general manager of the Barcelona Gremi d’Hotels, said Easter week was very successful for hoteliers, and that while “it is easier for politicians to blame tourism for these conflicts, people now know the main problems relate to touristic floors and apartments (short-term rentals).”
The conflict has been longstanding, but the invasion of summer tourists was a tough to swallow in contrast with the last two years, said Pere Marine Jové, from the Barcelona Neighbors Federation, FAVB. He said locals feel thrown out of places they had reencountered, like Plaza Real, and that having a drink at La Barceloneta or buying at La Boquería market costs now twice as much, “even though in 2020 shops that only cater to tourists had to shut down.”
Barcelona’s city hall set boundaries, the most severe one being the prohibition of new hotels in typically touristic areas, a halt to licenses for new touristic floors, tracking down illegal listings, among others.
“The prohibition of building new hotels is the one that most affected us and the less effective. Where visitors sleep is not the issue, they all want to visit the Sagrada Familia”, said Casals. For him, even though the popularity of Barcelona began with the 1992 Olympics, the disturbances came along the rising of online booking websites, gentrification and rising of prices. “This is the consequence of lack of management; in La Barceloneta there’s only one hotel, but in online booking sites the offer is enormous,” Casals continued.
The Neighbors Federation’s Marine Jové believes the measures had a good but partial effect, stopping the frantic proliferation of accommodations. Limiting arrivals should be the next step. FAVB celebrated the decision not to expand the Josep Tarradellas Barcelona–El Prat Airport from 50 to 80 million arrivals a year.
More recently, city hall agreed with the association of tour guides, APIT, to limit groups to 30 people, and to 15 in Ciutat Vella district. An environmental tax for cruise ships and limiting arrivals, like Palma de Mallorca did, is under discussion.
Dot Jutglà sees limiting capacity in some points of the city as a smart move that can offer a more pleasant experience. He is also for encouraging cruise ships that stay longer. “There’s normally 2 international visitors per resident in Spain, but there’s 4 in cities like Barcelona or Madrid. It is crucial to manage that flow,” he said.
Can Barcelona Find Balance?
What’s at stake is the economic model for the future of the city. FAVB is not against trying to decentralize, but says it is ultimately a matter of numbers: “We are not against tourism, but overcrowding has surpassed all limits. We need actions, like destinations as Venice are taking, so the city doesn’t become a theme park where nobody lives anymore,” said Marine Jové.
“We are a touristic country and the pandemic made it clear. The people have realized that we need to protect this industry when finding a new model,” Castels said. He suggests more searches for illegal accommodations, investments in new attractions and mobility, and a change in legislation that allows hotel improvements without losing money: “Infinite growth is not feasible. So if we want better quality tourism, we need to better our offer.”
For the UAB professor, the amount of visitors is generating the problem, but it can be managed with a sustainable long-term strategy that places value in the cultural and historic authenticity, aiming for cultural trips and business travelers. Also, creating new attractions in the nearby Montjuic mountains and the Besós River, highlighting the negative impact of transportation, and creating better quality jobs. “Political leadership will be important, to get full cooperation around these issues and consensus of all parties involved.”