The bright contemporary paintings and dusty antiques at Inaki Gonzalez’s store in this chic seaside city draws upscale tourists seeking the perfect keepsake. But at the entrance, they face a decidedly low-brow message: “Tourist go home” is splashed on the closed shutter of a restaurant in pink paint.
For Mr. Gonzalez, it’s a municipal embarrassment, not to mention a risk to livelihoods in a place that is among the most visited in Spain.
“If I travel somewhere, I wouldn’t want people to treat me like this,” he says. “And if I did get treated like that somewhere, I wouldn’t go back.”
Anti-tourism sentiment has been bubbling in the most-visited destinations of Europe for years, thanks to cheap airlines, apartment rentals – often illegal – that slash vacation costs but can bump up rent prices, and an economic model that often favors quantity over quality.
But this summer it has boiled over, with locals staging protests on beaches, hurling eggs at visitors, and tagging buildings with graffiti that leaves no question as to how they feel: tourists are no longer welcome. That it would show up in San Sebastian on Spain’s northern Basque coast, where the well-heeled have traditionally summered, is a sign of how fragile the balance is before full-blown “tourist-phobia” takes root and how easily it can be co-opted by “us” v. “them” politics.
The United Nations says its International Year of Sustainable Tourism for Development of 2017 is the perfect opportunity to advance toward a more responsible sector that can mollify passions that have flared in some places. “What residents of specific destinations are complaining about ... are not related to growth but with mismanagement of the tourism sector,” Taleb Rifai, secretary general of the UN World Tourism Organization, told The Christian Science Monitor in an email. “The enemy of the tourism sector is its inappropriate management and misbehavior.”
Tourism represents 10 percent of the world’s gross domestic product, creating 1 out of every 10 jobs. But the backlash against disruptive partying, mass crowds, and the displacement of locals has been mighty. From Barcelona to Venice – long battling crowds – to newer “hot” destinations like Croatia, local authorities have responded by increasing fines on illegal operators, limiting flows, and issuing tickets for disrespecting visitors.
Tensions are far from assuaged. “Tourist-phobia” had been the biggest story of the summer in Spain, until the terrorist attack on August 17 that counted a disproportionate number of tourists as victims. Since then anti-tourism sentiment has been muted – but no one expects it won’t resurface.
Spain’s tourism industry creates 13 percent of all jobs. This year has already broken records: according to statistics released today, July set a new monthly high of 10.51 million visitors to Spain, topping the previous record of 10.02 million set last August. Spain already drew 36 million tourists in the first six months of the year, an 11.6 percent rise from the same period last year.
But it’s clear that the growth isn’t felt by everyone. Local groups have been seeking a model that looks beyond the numbers and puts local considerations at the heart of it.
Many blame the new tensions this summer on the politicization of “tourist-phobia” as well. In Catalonia, where a referendum on independence is planned for Oct. 1, a youth group affiliated with a pro-independence political party is believed to be behind some of the most radical acts. One tourist bus was tagged with the graffiti “Tourism Kills Neighborhoods” and its tires slashed.
Here in San Sebastian, many also blame the youth group associated with Basque independence – and not necessarily the growth of tourism as such. Borja Fedi, who is working behind the city’s tourism desk on a recent day, says tourism is down from last year, when San Sebastian was the European Capital of Culture, but anti-tourism sentiment is up.
In the “old town,” where the majority of the bars are clustered selling the famed pintxos – or Basque tapas piled with anchovies, shrimp smothered in mayonnaise, wedges of Spanish tortilla, and fried eggs and peppers – residents have long complained of noise, especially on the weekends. But this is the first year they’ve seen a march against tourism, which took place, uncomfortably, on the afternoon of Barcelona’s terrorist attack. “I think they are inspired by what is happening [with the pro-independent youths] in Barcelona,” he says.
Outside a market where locals are trying to purchase weekly produce, two massive tourist groups gather around a statue that pays homage to the Tamborrada, or drum music festival celebrated in this city. Maria Jesus Molinero, an elderly local walking her dog, says the tourists don’t bother her. “There have always been tourists here,” she says. “[Radical youths] no longer have ETA,” she says of the Basque terrorist organization that officially disarmed in April. “So they need another reason to go to the streets.”
Outside the art store Apetak, Mr. Gonzalez says that young people are getting “tricked” by politicians into thinking that it’s tourists that are making it impossible to buy their first homes, but the problems are much more complex and go much farther back. “I couldn’t buy a house when I was 20 years old either,” he says. “It’s very easy to blame the tourists for all the problems of today.”
Some camera-toting pedestrians outside his store snap photos of the pink graffiti. Others walk by unaware. Danila Moreira, visiting from Australia with her Spanish husband, is down the street studying a map. She says she hasn’t felt any anger directed at her as a tourist. But when she walks past “Tourist Go Home” she raises her eyebrows. “They do make their money from us,” she says. “I think that should be washed off.”
Some tourism officials in San Sebastian have publicly worried that future tourists could be scared away.
Many locals are eager for a balance to be struck – especially in Barcelona where tourists have suffered so much. Erika Remon Serrat, a makeup artist, says that if officials can find ways to disperse tourism across the city and regulate the rental market, then she calls herself pro-tourism. “It gives us life and it gives us happiness,” she says. “I love tourists.”
• Alexis Xydias contributed reporting from Barcelona.