Photography: Anadolu Agency/Getty Images
“Barcelona is for sale, but not for the people who live here,” says Silvia Mateu, who has lived in the seaside neighborhood of Barceloneta for 47 of her 61 years.
For two years, Barcelona underwent a forced experience caused by the Covid pandemic. The number of visitors that had hovered close to 30 million suddenly dropped to zero.
For many citizens, the evacuation was a blessed relief as they rediscovered parts of the city that had become no-go areas for mass tourism.
But at the same time, dozens of bars, restaurants and shops closed, sparking a belated debate over the need to diversify the economy.
The city has had some success in attracting startups, especially in tech industries, which find the city on Spain’s Mediterranean coast a cheaper and more attractive option than Paris or Berlin. However, since the tourists returned for Easter, talk of diversification has been drowned out by the sound of cash registers.
The hotel industry, which has increasingly suffered during the pandemic, is understandably pleased. The companies that survived the lockdowns are charting a path out of the debt they took on. But not everyone is happy.
“We don’t want life to be what it was in the pandemic, but it also gave us the chance to see that there were other possibilities without mass tourism,” says Martí Cusó, who lives in the Gothic Quarter, the city’s busiest tourist area.
“My neighborhood is so saturated with tourists that it’s impossible to find anyone on the street or the kids to play or even sleep well,” he says. “These two years of the pandemic have been difficult, but it is also a missed opportunity to rethink the city.”
Jordi Rabassa, councilor for the Ciutat Vella neighborhood, which encompasses the Gothic Quarter, agrees.
“We didn’t do what was necessary to bring about a profound and real change in the economic model,” he recently told the news website elDiario.es.
“I’ve been advocating a more localized economy, but I’m swimming against the tide. We have to work to ensure that the last two years have not been just a mirage.”
Fermín Villar is president of the Amigos de La Rambla, a tree-lined pedestrian street synonymous with mass tourism.
“You can’t fix Barcelona without fixing La Rambla,” he says, noting that most shops and bars simply don’t cater to residents. “We can’t tell a bar how much to charge for a beer, but without the cooperation of the private sector we can do little,” he says.
His comments get to the heart of the problem: the many vested interests that depend on and even thrive on mass tourism don’t want anything to change, while those who want change often lack the authority to affect decision-making.
For example, Ada Colau, the mayor, wants to restrict the number of cruise passengers disembarking on a given day. She claims that of the 3.1 million who arrived in 2019, 40% spent less than four hours in the city.
Cruise tourists, she says, always visit the same places and tend not to invest a lot of money in the local economy. The port of Barcelona, however, is outside its jurisdiction.
The other category of tourist that irritates locals are young people who flock to the city for the hot weather, beaches, nightlife and party scene.
Colau is attacking them in an attempt to crack down on some 6,000 unlicensed tourist apartments, but is hampered by a Supreme Court ruling that allows websites to advertise illegal apartments.
Xavier Marcé, councilor responsible for tourism, wants hotels to charge more to attract more affluent customers, but it is not in his gift to set price levels.
Mateu mocks the authorities’ repeated claims that they want to attract “quality” tourism.
“What we have in Barceloneta is drinking tourism,” she says. “They don’t go to museums, they’re not here to get to know our culture.
“Last summer, it was hell. Everything was closed, but people still came for the weekend and had botellones [outdoor drinking parties] on the beach and on the street.”
Some of the partygoers were locals, but most were tourists, many escaping Covid’s stricter restrictions in other countries. “Now everything is open and it’s worse – the weekend starts on Wednesday.”
A recurring complaint is that most tourists visit the same small areas, which is why Marcé wants to see more dispersed visitors.
But Cusó says this is a distraction. “This is just a way to avoid the issue,” he argues. “Even if tourists visit other areas, they will still come to the Gothic Quarter and Park Güell. It’s not about where people go or whether they’re rich or poor, it’s about having a city less reliant on tourism in the first place.”
Mateu insists that she is not anti-tourist per se. Instead, she wants a tourism model that prioritizes civility and does away with visitors who keep locals up all night and urinate on their doors.
There have already been outbreaks and conflicts in Barceloneta and elsewhere this year. With accommodations booked for July and August, she sees a difficult summer ahead.
“It’s worse than ever and it’s only June; this summer is going to be monstrous,” she says.