Barcelona: Taming tourism

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Las Ramblas, the tree-lined pedestrian mall.
Las Ramblas, the tree-lined pedestrian mall. Photo Credit: William Nash
BARCELONA -- The modern, white Joan Miro Museum nestled in green hills encircling this city is emblematic of Barcelona's hopes for a new direction in tourism.


Down below, at the city's port, is a 200-foot statue of Christopher Columbus at the center of all that rankles the city's voters about the current state of tourism.

The Christopher Columbus statue sits on the harbor at the foot of Las Ramblas, marking the spot where the explorer landed in 1493 on his return from the new world.
The Christopher Columbus statue sits on the harbor at the foot of Las Ramblas, marking the spot where the explorer landed in 1493 on his return from the new world. Photo Credit: William Nash

The statue anchors Las Ramblas, the 18th century shaded walkway where tourists leaving the sandy beaches and the cruise ships docked at the port stampede through the city. These millions of tourists who visit the city annually are blamed by locals for rising prices at stores and bars and for rising rents that are pushing them out of their homes. In the Ramblas neighborhood alone, some 45% of locals have had to leave.

This is the geography of the political debate ignited by Ada Colau, who surprised the world two years ago when she was elected mayor of Barcelona, Spain's second-largest city, running largely on the issue of tourism.  

No other high-profile politician had elevated runaway tourism into such a winning political issue. Colau promised to slow the pace of tourism and prevent Barcelona from becoming the next Venice, which is shorthand for allowing tourism to overwhelm locals and debase everyday life.

Within days of her victory, the word went out that Colau had declared "war on tourism." She was called radical. Even the head of the United Nations' World Tourism Organization warned that the world was watching her.

So halfway through her term, how is Colau's tourism project doing? A stroll down Las Ramblas after several large cruise ships have docked dispels any notion that the Barcelona government has a radical plan to rein in the tourists. They still stampede through the city, and the party-hearty ethic is alive and well.

Among the crowds, I saw a young man drinking beer wearing a T-shirt that proclaimed, "He's getting married. I'm getting drunk." Next to him was his pal, the supposed groom, already drunk.

Instead, Colau has turned the city into an open-air laboratory. The mayor and city council started with the basics, investigating where the crowds come from, where they stay and how they behave. As they discover the points of friction and controversy, they have devised plans and enacted measures to find that illusive middle ground that integrates tourists into the city's life, not the other way around, while maintaining a healthy economy. They also want to ensure that everyone benefits economically from the industry.

"We have to balance the needs of tourism with the people who live here," said Valenti Oviedo, CEO of the Institut de Cultura de Barcelona, who is working with city hall to enhance cultural tourism. "If we begin our discussions with 'What can we do for tourism?' then it will be very difficult for our city to run organically, naturally."

A McDonald’s restaurant on Las Ramblas, the tree-lined pedestrian mall where many cruisers and beachgoers enter the city.
A McDonald’s restaurant on Las Ramblas, the tree-lined pedestrian mall where many cruisers and beachgoers enter the city. Photo Credit: William Nash

A growing problem

Barcelona's concerns are not unique.

This summer, the mayor of Florence ordered the steps of the city's Renaissance churches to be hosed down daily and kept wet to prevent tourists from lounging and eating snacks in sacred spaces.

The five villages of Italy's Cinque Terre have imposed limits on the number of tourists they allow to visit. Even much maligned Venice is restricting fast-food outlets and proposing entry fees for visitors to St. Mark's Square.  

Colau's plans are the most ambitious. This city of 1.6 million welcomed more than 30 million visitors last year. As a result, tourism accounts for nearly 15% of the city's gross economy, according to official figures. It is one of the most popular destinations in Europe, with new infrastructure that supports those millions. The city has won awards for its tourism prowess.

While Barcelona has been a tourist destination for more than 100 years, it gained world status after hosting the 1992 Summer Olympics. The 2008 global economic downturn hit Spain hard, so Barcelona opened up to more low-cost airlines and more cruise ships. Tourism was praised as a lifesaver for the city.  

Its very success fueled the anger of citizens who felt overwhelmed if not endangered by the mass tourism industry. The election of Colau has not removed those fears: This year began with several thousand locals marching down Las Ramblas protesting mass tourism with banners declaring, "Barcelona is not for sale."

The mayor has her defenders.

"Ada Colau is the first to try to respond to the problems of tourism, and that is why she is controversial," said Ester Prat, an artist and director of the Rocaumbert Arts Factory. "But she is not radical. She is valiant."

“The Tapestry of the Fundacio” by Joan Miro, on display at the Miro Museum.
“The Tapestry of the Fundacio” by Joan Miro, on display at the Miro Museum. Photo Credit: William Nash

Shifting the focus to culture

The mayor and city council are changing the emphasis from the mass tourism of cruise ships and beach holidays to cultural tourism centered on museums, performing arts, new literary centers, creative spaces and art factories along with "necklaces" of new green spaces to attract a high-end crowd.

As a start, the city has combined its three performing arts venues -- the Opera House, Concert Hall and Auditorium -- as the Barcelona Obertura. Together, they will be promoted as a classical arts complex offering to visitors who would normally go to Vienna or Paris for music.

"This is for people who want to do more than go to the beach," said Victor Medem, a coordinator of the Barcelona Obertura.

The city is also creating a house of literature for publishing new works and sponsoring writers and writing festivals that will in turn attract the culture tourists prized by Barcelona. The city is also charging fees at formerly free cultural sites as a form of crowd control and banning large tour groups from places like the historical Boqueria Market.

Sunday at Cathedral Square.
Sunday at Cathedral Square. Photo Credit: William Nash

World famous museums, such as those devoted to Miro, Antoni Gaudi and Pablo Picasso, already pull in visitors by the millions. At a recent visit to the Miro Museum, I saw the easy balance of local visitors, especially students, and tourists that the mayor hopes to duplicate throughout the city.

One of Colau's first steps was a moratorium on new hotel construction while the city did a census of all available tourist lodgings, legal and illegal. The census enabled the city to count how many visitors it can house, essentially its carrying capacity, as well as respond to complaints that illegal tourist lodgings are raising rents across the city.    

The city found hundreds of unlicensed short-term rentals advertised on Airbnb or HomeAway and is in the process of shutting them down at the rate of one a day. The apartment owners were fined, and Airbnb and HomeAway were also fined for listing unlicensed rentals.  

That move caused a stink. Airbnb has appealed its $633,000 fine, arguing that it can't be blamed for the rising rents since cities all over Europe are experiencing rent hikes. The company is also marshaling the support of citizens who say the extra cash from Airbnb rentals is crucial. The city isn't convinced and is dispatching a force of 110 officials to uncover more unlicensed rentals.  

Recently Barcelona relaxed the original moratorium on new hotels and is allowing four- and five-star hotels to be built away from the crowded city center to attract higher-end cultural tourists.

There are other new measures underway, from monitoring the level of pay for hospitality workers to refining the number and routes of tour buses. The city hasn't agreed on how to cover the costs of cleaning up after the tourists and additional security costs. For the moment, the tourist tax only covers tourism promotion.

Frank Gehry’s fish sculpture, “Peix,” sits in front of the Mapfre Tower on Barcelona’s waterfront; the tower on the right is the Hotel Arts.
Frank Gehry’s fish sculpture, “Peix,” sits in front of the Mapfre Tower on Barcelona’s waterfront; the tower on the right is the Hotel Arts. Photo Credit: William Nash

Unable to control cruise ships

Outside the city's reach are cruise ships. In the past decade, the number of cruise passengers visiting Barcelona has quadrupled, to 2.5 million each year, making it the sixth-busiest cruise port in the world. As a regional hub for the cruise companies, the port is a big employer and economic powerhouse in the region, making it the Miami of the Mediterranean.

But the port is under the control of a separate national authority that overseas the entire Spanish system of ports and harbors. With a small minority voice, the city cannot decide how many cruise ships will be welcomed or how.

Oviedo said cruise passengers too often act like "zombie tourists," coming in and out of Barcelona for a coffee or a drink, a souvenir and a ride on a bus, leaving behind trash to be cleared but little economic benefit.

"They are not coming for a cultural adventure," he said.

The cruise industry, on the other hand, is proud of its growing presence in Barcelona and points to a recent study by Jordi Surinach, professor of applied economy at the University of Barcelona, showing that cruises have created 7,000 jobs in the region.

Carnival Corp. is planning to open a new terminal in the city next year.

Cruise ships at their piers at the mouth of Barcelona’s harbor. The city is the sixth-busiest cruise port in the world, with 2.5 million cruisers visiting each year.
Cruise ships at their piers at the mouth of Barcelona’s harbor. The city is the sixth-busiest cruise port in the world, with 2.5 million cruisers visiting each year. Photo Credit: William Nash

Isabel Fernandez captured this tug of war in her new documentary "La Ciutat dels Turistes" (City of Tourists), which was broadcast in May on the Barcelona public television station.

Barcelona-born and bred, Fernandez has been making documentaries in the city for 23 years. She said she never thought of tourism as a serious topic, because it was always presumed to be a good thing for Barcelona, and all the annoyances and misgivings that went with it were suffered in private. Yes, some citizens sent photographs of unruly tourists vomiting and even defecating in the streets to the city council but little more than that.

"Then Ada Colau was elected," said Fernandez. "She took the conversation out of the cafes and bars and put it in the middle of our lives."

In her documentary, top economists explain that although tourism overall looks good for the city, it hasn't helped the average citizen enough and is blamed for growing inequities.  

"Investors leave phone messages to buy up entire blocks," she said. "Residences are surrounded by tourist enterprises that keep you up all night from the noise of partying. The police try to help, but they can't keep up."

The biggest surprise in her reporting, she said, was how many citizens are disappointed in their new mayor because, "They don't think Ada Colau is doing enough -- not at all. But Ada Colau doesn't have enough power to resolve all this."

The mayor, who is up for re-election in two years, is becoming a national figure. Though she is only a mayor, she was named one of the top 28 European leaders this year by Politico, in part because she is showing she can pull coalitions together and find solutions.

And the world will keep watching her solutions for Barcelona and tourism.

Elizabeth Becker is the award-winning author of "Overbooked: The Exploding Business of Travel and Tourism" and a journalist who covered national and international affairs as a correspondent for the New York Times, where she shared the 2002 Pulitzer Prize for Public Service for reporting on 9/11. She served as NPR's senior foreign editor and, before that, covered Cambodia for the Washington Post.

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