'Barcelona could die of success': Why a Spanish city is cracking down on tourism

After decades of promoting itself as a top tourist destination Spain’s second-biggest city is cracking down on visitors, but trying to scale back tourism without sacrificing its benefits is a tricky balancing act.

Strategic plan will regulate everything from workers’ conditions to use of public space

Tourists take a break on the steps in front of the Barcelona Cathedral on March 29, 2017. (Cristina Roca)

Barcelona has had its fill of tourists.


After decades of promoting itself as a top tourist destination following the success of the 1992 Olympic Games, Spain's second-biggest city — and one of Europe's most popular tourist hubs — is cracking down on visitors.


Two months ago, city council approved a ban on all new hotels, hostels and tourist apartments in the city centre.


It expects to go even further today with the Strategic Tourism Plan, which will regulate all aspects of tourism, from working conditions in the sector to the way tourists use public space.


The problem, in a nutshell, is that the 30 million people who visit Barcelona each year have become too much of a good thing for its 1.6 million residents.


The city's left-wing government wants to avoid the fate of Venice — which many see as theme park by day, ghost town by night.


"We need to control [tourism], otherwise we'd end up having a city with just tourist apartments and deserted neighbourhoods," says Agusti Colom, chief of tourism for the municipal government.

"Barcelona could die of success."



Balancing act


But trying to scale back tourism without sacrificing its benefits is a tricky balancing act.


The Strategic Tourism Plan to be presented today reflects that dilemma. The plan trumpets principles that appeal to everyone, like sustainability and quality. But its concrete measures have raised a storm of controversy. 


Measures in the pipeline include hiking taxes on tourist apartments by classifying them as businesses rather than residential properties — to the annoyance of owners, who complain they are unfairly targeted.


"Tourist apartments are the most heavily taxed type of accommodation in the city," says Enrique Alcantara, president of the Tourist Apartment Association Apartur.


"We are paying more taxes than four-star hotels."

Signs protesting the effects of mass tourism, such as this one saying: 'We want a decent neighbourhood,' hang on many balconies in Barcelona’s central neighbourhoods. (Cristina Roca)


Another measure aims to raise costs for day-trippers with a massive fee hike — from 4.5 euros to 34 euros — for each tourist bus that parks at the foot of Montjuic, the castle-topped hill that overlooks the city and the port.


Some measures are already being rolled out. One neighbourhood has repurposed curbside parking, moving restaurant terraces off busy sidewalks and onto platforms installed on parking spots.


Segways and electric bikes, which pose a danger in the old town's narrow streets, have also been restricted. 


Improving mobility on constantly busy streets is an important element of the plan.


"In the latest polls, 58 per cent of tourists said that they found some spaces in the city very overcrowded. [For residents, overcrowding] is the second biggest problem for the entire city," says Colom. 


Freeze on tourist beds


The latest clampdown comes two months after Barcelona Mayor Ada Colau spearheaded a plan that freezes the total number of tourist accommodation spots at 158,384 and seeks to gradually redistribute them away from the city centre.


Hospitality trade unions and tourist apartment owners are fuming.

Barcelona’s landmark square of Placa Catalunya is one of the main dropoff points for tourist buses, airport shuttles and trains coming in from the outskirts of the city. (Cristina Roca)


Manel Casals, president of the hotel guild, feels the plan unfairly targets his sector.


"It demonizes hotels," he says.


He feels that legal tourist accommodation is being penalized, while what he considers the real culprit — about 6,000 unlicensed tourist apartments — get away without paying taxes.


Colau is doing battle against accommodation sharing services like Airbnb, which list the unlicensed apartments.


In January, she committed to doubling the number of inspectors who track down illegal rentals, but it's turned out to be an uphill battle.

Barcelona Mayor Ada Colau is doing battle against accommodation sharing services like Airbnb, which list unlicensed apartments. (Manu Fernandez/Associated Press)


Airbnb is refusing to pay the $650,000 US fine that Barcelona slapped on it last year, and finding and then shutting down illegal apartments one by one is a lengthy, inefficient process.


Colau seems undeterred by the pushback.


"Tourism is a positive asset for the city, but it was imbalanced and it's directly impacting the right to housing," she told Catalunya Radio last November.


City priority


Her promise to rein in tourism and focus on locals helped her win the 2015 municipal election and these goals remain a priority for her government.


She has lots of support. Angry residents argue that mass tourism seriously affects their quality of life.


Barbara Nicolau, who lives in the popular El Born neighbourhood, says that in just three years, her building went from having four residential apartments to just her own: the rest are now holiday rentals.

The Rambla, Barcelona’s busiest tourist street, runs from Placa Catalunya to the seafront and is lined with souvenir stalls, portrait painters and street artists. (Cristina Roca)


"Our neighbourhood has changed from A to Z in a very intense way. Now they're building a hotel … and you can see that our landlord will soon say: 'Well, I can get more for this apartment, so … clear out'.'" 


She is urging the government to be even more aggressive or "this will eat us up."


In the historic Gothic district, 27 per cent of all housing is being used as tourist accommodation and rents have shot up by 25 per cent since 2014, official city statistics show.


They also reveal that the number of residents in the area has fallen by almost one-half in the past decade.


On Jan. 28, the day after the plan was passed, a demonstration against mass tourism brought together more than 60 local groups — mostly neighbourhood assemblies — on La Rambla, the city's busiest tourist street.


Local shops disappear


A group of children held a banner that read: "I want to grow up and play in the Barceloneta" — something that has become more difficult as the old fishermen's neighbourhood has become a tourist mecca.


Local shops that have been serving residents for a lifetime have been forced to make way for pricey, tourist-oriented emporiums, says Agustin Cócola, a Cardiff University geographer studying the effects of tourism in Barcelona.

A group of children take part in the demonstration against mass tourism in Barcelona, drawing attention to the difficulty they now have playing in their old fishermen's neighbourhood that has become a tourist mecca. (Cristina Roca)


Nicolau lives on a street where there used to be lots of these family-run shops.


"Every year, as the summer months approach, 10 or 12 commerces fall and another type of businesses open, and these are for tourists," she says.



Although the new strategic plan aims to regulate tourism more tightly, activists doubt it's radical enough to reverse the trend of the past two decades. 


They say powerful hotel lobbies have the upper hand, benefiting from tourism at the expense of broader society, which pays for the true cost of tourism.

Protesters holding signs saying 'Barcelona is not for sale' took their demonstration to the city's busiest tourist street on Jan. 28. (Cristina Roca)


Tourism creates an estimated 14 per cent of jobs in Barcelona, according to a 2016 official city report.


But much of that work pays minimum wage or less — meaning workers don't pay tax. Many of the jobs are also seasonal, says Cócola.



'Destroy their bodies'


Hotel room cleaners often work full-time for the equivalent of $650 US a month – half what the law says they are entitled to for that job, which is around $1,300 US.


The cleaners "destroy their bodies" and "self-medicate" with painkillers to earn a living, says Isabel Cruz, representative of the Kellys cleaners' association. 


Colom, the tourism councillor, acknowledges that "the employment we are generating does not allow for adequate living standards."

Most shops in the Gothic neighbourhood target tourists, at the expense of local-oriented commerce. (Cristina Roca)


He says the strategic plan will tackle this problem by setting a high bar for sustainability and fair employment standards.


The dilemma is that whatever problems the tourist hordes bring, no one wants to kill the golden goose.


At the end of the day, the business community knows that if the city becomes oversaturated and homogeneous, it could lose the charm that drew visitors in the first place, says Colom.


Maintaining a balance is in everyone's interest, he says. But agreeing on how to do that is proving to be easier said than done. 


Cristina Roca is a freelance journalist based in Barcelona. She is a Fellow at the Munk School of Global Affairs and holds an MA in cultural analysis from the University of Amsterdam. Follow her on Twitter @crisisfwp.