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

edited June 9 in The Corona Virus

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.

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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.”

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

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.

Ricardo Cases for TIMEMasked tourists visit Casa Batlló on June 6.

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.

Ricardo Cases for TIMEA portrait artist and his subject in Parc Güell on June 6.
Ricardo Cases for TIMEVisitors pose for a photograph at Parc Güell on June 6.

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.

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

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.”

Ricardo Cases for TIMEA work out session at Barceloneta Beach on June 6.
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