Barcelona tiptoes (gingerly) around the tourist trap

As foreign tourists flood in, the iconic city takes steps to limit activities and preserve its past. 

Gustau Nacarino/Reuters/File
The Boqueria market in Barcelona became so popular with tourists that the city has banned tourist groups of 15 or more during weekends.

It is the height of summer and Barcelona is packed with tourists, drawn to its sunny weather and singular architecture. They flock to its iconic church, the Sagrada Familia. They pack the Mediterranean beachfront, and roll their suitcases along La Rambla, the city’s famous tree-lined promenade.

The money they spend boosts the local economy. But many residents worry that their city is being loved to death. For many locals, La Rambla, far from being a leafy oasis, is a route to be avoided at all costs.

It’s like a dangerous river, says Daniel Pardo, a resident of Ciutat Vella, which receives the bulk of the tourist traffic. Every day he awakes to the sounds of drills and bulldozers, constructing new lodging. When he heads outside, there is nowhere to repair shoes or buy new light fixtures. Mom-and-pop shops have been replaced by bike rentals or fast food. He counts himself lucky that his sleep is not disrupted by the rowdiness of bachelor parties or the bars catering to tourists here for a party at a “cheap price.”

“The hardest to bear is that day by day residents keep leaving,” he says. “It is weakening the social fabric of communities.” So his neighborhood is trying to recreate it.

While the city government faces an epic search for balance – between quality of life for residents and jobs that tourism creates – residents are turning to smaller solutions to protect the Barcelona they love from soulless chains and package deals. Pardo’s group, for example, has organized into an umbrella group to boost their political clout. Historic preservation is also getting a new look.

Saving the casa-fabrica

In El Raval, a traditional working class neighborhood of Barcelona that played its part in Spain’s industrial revolution, Mercedes Tatjer Mir, an urban historian at the University of Barcelona, pauses in front of an 18th century textile factory. Now surrounded by tacky souvenir shops – one of them selling summer dresses and sarongs and blaring “Brown Eyed Girl” – the casa-fabrica represents an increasingly rare artifact in Barcelona. Roughly half of the historic factories of El Raval have disappeared since Barcelona hosted the 1992 Summer Olympics and found itself on the tourist radar. The neighborhood, which fell on hard times, has since watched new hotels and housing vie for space.

Thanks to Ms. Tatjer Mir’s efforts and those of other preservationists, journalists, and concerned citizens, the city has placed a temporary moratorium on construction licenses for 48 of the 54 remaining edifices as it considers their historic heritage and possible protection.

“People can say it’s better to get rid of the old and construct new buildings, but that implies that you lose the historic memory of the city,” she says. “Barcelona then becomes a theme park.”

The city is one of the most visited metropolises in Europe, drawing the fourth-highest number of foreign tourists after London, Paris, and Rome. With a relatively small 1.7 million population, it hosted 8.3 million visitors last year – nearly five times the number in the pre-Olympic era in 1990. The top attraction, Sagrada Familia by famed Catalan architect Antoni Gaudi, received 3.7 million visitors last year, up from 700,000 in 1994.

Tourist traffic is poised to grow even more this year with trouble rocking Turkey, Tunisia, and other alternate spots.

This is obviously a good thing for many especially in a crisis-hit country; tourism accounts for 12 percent of Barcelona’s economic output. But locals, who bear noise pollution, overcrowding, and price hikes, say it benefits a few at the peril of many. A survey carried out by city hall in 2015 showed that tourism was considered the fourth biggest problem Barcelona faces, after unemployment and work conditions, insecurity, and traffic.

Mayor sets limits

Concerned residents have been buoyed by the victory last year of left-leaning city mayor Ada Colau, who made it a campaign promise to find the right balance between tourism and residents’ concerns. Her administration is cracking down on unregistered vacation rentals and last summer temporarily froze licenses for the construction of new tourist accommodation.

This summer, Segways were banned from the city's beachfront. In 2013 an entrance fee was slapped onto visits at Gaudi’s Parc Guell, which drew 2.76 million people last year. While controversial, it was done in the name of conservation. In the Boqueria food market in El Raval tourist groups of 15 or more are prohibited on weekends.

But even on a relatively slow weekday, tourists swarm the stalls. One crouches down for a close-up of mounds of dried fruits and is swatted away by a vendor. Nearby Narcisa Fando, a 53-year-old fishmonger who has worked at this market since she was age 19, says that she supports the ban for a simple reason: “So that I can work."

“They touch the fish, and pick things up. They take photos of us like we are in a zoo,” she says. “People don’t realize, this is not a tourist attraction.”

Mr. Pardo insists this does not represent "tourist-phobia." His neighborhood group, Ciutat Vella Is Not For Sale, holds monthly gatherings in a local plaza, for example, something that happened naturally in the past but with the expulsion of the population now needs to be artificially created. It also joined a conglomeration called the Assembly of Neighborhoods for Sustainable Tourism a year ago. They talk about ways to replace  economic activity if tourism is reduced, though so far they don’t have the answers.

Identity and interchange

The backlash by residents threatens more than just economic growth. It impedes the interchange of language and culture that should be implicit in the tourist experience.

“It’s our loss too,” says Pardo. “No one wants to close inwards, but when you feel surrounded, you adopt defenses,” he says. “We pass each other, we bump into each other, but we aren’t meeting each other.”

El Raval’s industrial buildings showcase more than just history, adds Tatjer Mir.

“If Barcelona has attracted visitors here, it is because we had a significant industrial development that permitted certain social classes to build modernist buildings,” she says. “When you destroy this space, … you lose your history but also your identity. I’m not talking about identity as something romantic. But as something with [significance] for the future…. Because our identity can help us in a world that is so quickly changing, and it can help us find a more sustainable path, one that doesn’t create so many inequalities.”

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