Can Barcelona Fix Its Love-Hate Relationship With Tourists After the Pandemic?

10 minute read

Before last year, Martí Cusó didn’t like to linger in the streets of Barcelona’s Gothic Quarter, the neighborhood where he has lived all his life. It was impossible to sit on a bench or play with his kids outside without being engulfed by tourists. Shuffling behind tour guides, gazing upward at the architecture or pausing abruptly to buy souvenirs from street hawkers, the visitors were often a nuisance to locals navigating the streets. Some zoomed through the area’s narrow medieval passages on scooters and taxi bikes. Many crowded the bar terraces, which had gradually replaced the local amenities that residents once relied on. “Tourism had eaten up all of the public space and relegated us locals to a role of extras on a set,” says Cusó, 31, a teacher and member of the Gothic Quarter residents’ association.

Despite residents’ protests, the number of tourists flooding into Barcelona soared over the past two decades, with nearly 12 million visiting the city of 1.6 million in 2019. But when COVID-19 hit, forcing Spain to close its borders to tourists, locals reclaimed the city center. “We saw scenes we hadn’t seen in a long time. The squares that are normally full of terrazas and tourists were occupied by kids playing, or families, or people sunbathing,” Cusó says. “Now we’re scared we’re going to lose that again.”

Tourists visit the recently reopened Sagrada Familia on June 6.Ricardo Cases for TIME

E.U. leaders have agreed to allow vaccinated tourists to visit European countries this summer without quarantining. News of the plan prompted an immediate 47% surge in searches for flights to Europe, according to travel analytics firm Hopper. In Barcelona, where Americans make up the largest group of foreign visitors, the city hopes to welcome 1 million tourists this summer. On May 29, the Sagrada Familia, Antoni Gaudí’s iconic cathedral, reopened to visitors.

Read more: How Europe Transformed Itself for Tourism, and Why It Backfired

Across Europe’s many tourism hot spots, authorities are walking a tightrope as the COVID-19 recovery gathers steam. The pandemic laid bare how a rush for tourism dollars has left downtowns dependent on the industry. Officials are desperate to revive the sector, which has suffered mass layoffs and normally contributes heavily to local economies across Europe. (In Barcelona, it makes up 15% of GDP.) At the same time, locals are pressuring city governments to use the disruption of COVID-19 to impose new rules on the industry. In March, Italy’s government said it would ban cruise ships from entering the center of Venice, while Amsterdam is pressing ahead with a plan to curb sex work in the city center and relocate its famous red-light district.

Masked tourists visit Casa Batlló on June 6.Ricardo Cases for TIME

In Barcelona, officials have launched a strategy to transform post-pandemic tourism in a way that satisfies both residents and visitors. Under the progressive mayor Ada Colau, Barcelona in January announced a plan that would effectively ban homeowners from renting out individual rooms to tourists on platforms like Airbnb, which would make the city’s already tight controls on tourist accommodation some of the strictest in the world. In a bid to revive central areas and reduce tourism’s group, in April, the city announced a $21 million plan to buy empty commercial spaces and fill them with businesses catering to locals. A new app and crowd-monitoring system aims to divert tourists to avoid congested parts of town. “We’ve had a break from tourists for a year to think about how we want to deal with them,” says Xavier Marcé, Barcelona’s councillor for tourism and creative industries.

A portrait artist and his subject in Parc Güell on June 6.Ricardo Cases for TIME
Visitors pose for a photograph at Parc Güell on June 6.Ricardo Cases for TIME

The city is also changing how it sells itself. On May 17, the tourism board launched an ad campaign, “Barcelona like never before,” touting cleaner, calmer streets. Running in English and Castilian Spanish, authorities say the ads target “high-quality” tourists who come to participate in the local lifestyle, and also encourage locals to visit areas and attractions normally overrun by tourists.

Locals are skeptical that the city’s plans can help them preserve their newfound ownership of the city. But Marcé insists Barcelona can improve for residents and welcome tourists back at the same time: “I can’t put up walls around the city. I can’t move the Sagrada Familia. But there’s a lot of things I can do.”

Rebalancing the relationship between locals and tourists

Barcelona has developed a love-hate relationship with tourists in the three decades since hosting the 1992 Summer Olympics, which kickstarted the industry’s rapid growth in the city. Almost all of the city’s major attractions are in the historic center, meaning that tourists were concentrated in a few neighborhoods. Its cruise port and proximity to seaside towns attracted hordes of day-trippers, who spent less money and flooded the city center. An influx of study-abroad students and “lifestyle migrants”—who come for a few months or years at time to work remotely—compounded the issue, says Claudio Milano, a professor in the social anthropology department of the Autonomous University of Barcelona. “The city has grown to be seen as a place of leisure.”

Rents climbed and public services, such as waste management, came under pressure. Limits on new hotel construction and short-term home rentals, and rule changes like a ban on tour groups using electric scooters, haven’t allayed residents concerns. Tourism became a lightning rod for anticapitalist and antiglobalization sentiments that had grown in Spain following the recession of 2008–2009, with groups of local protesters vandalizing tourist buses with slogans like “tourism kills neighborhoods.”

“Before the pandemic, coexistence between locals and tourists, especially young people and those who come to get drunk, was very conflictive,” says Antonio Martínez Gómez, president of the residents’ association for the Raval, another central Barcelona neighborhood.

Visitors enjoy the view of the city from Parc Güell on June 6.Ricardo Cases for TIME
Visitors play on Barceloneta Beach on June 6.Ricardo Cases for TIME

But the pandemic has also shown just how much cities like Barcelona rely on tourists. More than 200 businesses in the city center folded between March and September 2020. “Lots of people fell into unemployment, and families are suffering because of the lack of income,” Martínez Gómez says. “The recovery in tourism will be good for the local economy. But we need to find a balance.”

Alok Lahad, who runs a souvenir shop near the Sagrada Familia, says Barcelona “is dead without tourists.” He has lived in the city for 25 years and used to be a jeweler, but converted his store after the 2008 financial crisis, selling models of the cathedral and nearby Parc Güell, as well as T-shirts emblazoned with the logo of Barcelona’s soccer team. The business has been mostly shuttered since March 2020, and Lahad says he has burned through his savings to pay rent and bills. “There’s a very big possibility I’ll lose the business if tourists don’t come back this summer,” he says. “The locals who criticize tourism don’t seem to understand that the people who are working in the industry are not foreigners, not tourists. They eat, drink, go to school and give business to the local nontourist businesses. They’re locals too.”

A work out session at Barceloneta Beach on June 6.Ricardo Cases for TIME
Pigeons on Plaza de Cataluña in Barcelona on June 6.Ricardo Cases for TIME

Officials say the pandemic might help rebalance the relationship between locals and tourists by starting afresh. “Without this year, it’d be like entering a wheel and it’s spinning and you can’t stop it,” says Marian Muro, who began her job as director of Barcelona’s embattled tourism board two weeks before the pandemic started. “We’ve spent a year just thinking.” Where the city was previously reacting to the problems tourism created, she argues, it is can now plan strategic investment in and promotion of the industry to exert some control over it.

Authorities’ main goal is alleviating pressure on the city center. Tourist buses will take a new route, and the Check Barcelona app will warn visitors of already busy attractions, beaches and parking lots. The app and marketing materials will highlight alternative neighborhoods, such as Poblenou to the east, a hub for tech; northern Gràcia, for its food scene; and the nearby wine region of Penedès.

But officials also want to revitalize locals’ relationship with their city. In June, the Rambla, the pedestrianized shopping street normally brimming with tourists, will hold a two-week festival encouraging local residents to reconnect with retailers and restaurants. The city has earmarked a fifth of its city recovery funds to “diversify and balance” neighborhoods, buying up some of the 5,323 vacant commercial spaces in the city to rent to local-friendly businesses at below-market rates. Paris credits a similar program in the 2000s with saving local amenities and stemming the rise of chain stores in its center.

Muro says her long-term goal is to bring different classes of visitors to Barcelona. That includes bigger spenders, such as Russian tourists, who spend almost 30% more during their visit than the average visitor. But she also wants people attracted by Barcelona’s culture and customs more than sunbathing and excessive drinking. “In the center, there are restaurants where I wouldn’t eat,” she says. “And if I wouldn’t eat there, then neither would the kind of tourists we’re pursuing.”

Young women stroll along Barceloneta Beach on June 6.Ricardo Cases for TIME
An artist in Las Ramblas takes a smoke break while waiting for customers on June 6Ricardo Cases for TIME

A more equitable and sustainable model for tourism

European governments are under substantial pressure to revive their pandemic-ravaged travel industries. International visitors spent $619 billion in Europe in 2019. That figure fell by 64% in 2020, and about 3.6 million people lost tourism jobs.

Governments across the region are now pushing to relax travel restrictions to allow a rebound this summer. But officials in Spain, Italy and Greece say they will use the recovery to make tourism more environmentally and socially sustainable. At a local level, the key is a more equal distribution of the industry, not just geographically, but also of the wealth it creates, says Marcé, the Barcelona tourism councillor. “We need to widen the frame. It can’t just be hotels and restaurants and luxury brands in the center of town, but also local actors that have a lot to offer visitors but maybe aren’t part of powerful lobbies that have set the agenda in tourism.” Stores selling daily necessities, cultural creators and local sports venues should also benefit, he adds.

A cafe on Las Ramblas in Barcelona on June 6.Ricardo Cases for TIME
Fashionable women walking near Barceloneta Beach on June 6.Ricardo Cases for TIME

Cusó, the Gothic Quarter resident, doubts the city’s plans will improve the lives of Barcelona residents. The only way to do that, he says, is to stop promoting the city and reduce the number of tourists who come. “I wanted the government to use this opportunity to rethink a new model for the city,” he says, arguing that the city should spend recovery funds to create new jobs in public health and education. “What they’re doing now is just an attempt to revert to the situation we had in 2019.”

Even if it is, Marcé doesn’t expect Barcelona’s tourism to recover to pre-pandemic levels until 2023, amid varying rates of vaccine rollouts and restriction easing around the world. Marcé says that time will allow the city’s strategy to bear fruit. “We think we can have a very different situation,” he says. “To find out, we need tourists to come back.”

Beach goers find a spot at Barceloneta Beach on June 6.Ricardo Cases for TIME

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