I see them everyday, smell them, squeeze myself through them. They are practically everywhere. Queueing in front of the metro ticket vending machine clueless what to press. Standing on the left side of the escalators blocking the way of irritated locals who are in a hurry. Stopping in the middle of a narrow street, lost and confused, checking their maps not minding the horde of people stranded behind them. You can easily spot them unabashedly wearing silly costumes shouting in the middle of Las Ramblas celebrating their hen nights or stag parties. And oh, Mexican hats in Spain? ¿En serio?
“What is happening to my city?” My Catalan friend Alba wonders to herself every time she takes the bus to work. Living right beside Parc Güell, the buses are always full to the rafters that she always finds herself standing throughout the whole ride and not a single day without a single tourist asking her the way to Parc Güell.
Barcelona is under siege and the invasion is in full swing. Thousands and thousands of tourists outnumber the locals day in day out. Just imagine having a flat built for four people and everyday, twenty visitors come and stay for a couple of days and when they leave, another twenty arrive.
I arrive twenty minutes late for my meeting with my Catalan friend, Mariona. After reciting my apologies, we find ourselves comfortably seated outside Pitinbar, one of Barcelona´s oldest coffee shops right in front of the Born market. The sky is a palette of grey and dark blue. The place is already full to overflowing like a busy anthill brimming with industrious ants. A group of Dutch tourists atop their orange bikes prepare for the start of their bike tour while a band of American sightseers squeeze themselves into the crowd trying not to lose their Catalan guide. Pickpockets are on the prowl. Sipping my coffee, I can´t help but notice that we are the only customers not lugging any baggage or figuring out our exact location in the map.
Boom, boon and bane
It is an undeniable fact that Barcelona is currently enjoying a tremendous tourism boom. Thanks to the 1992 Olympic games for making it one of the most desired cities in the world. Over the years, Barcelona has been host to millions and millions of tourists. Around 7.3 million visitors came last year, almost three times the number of its inhabitants.
Blessed with sandy beaches, well-planned streets, modernist architecture, sophisticated arts and culture, salacious gastronomy, a colourful history and a cosmopolitan atmosphere, Barcelona projects an image of an efficient host willing to offer everything to its guests no matter what it takes. There is no stopping its visitors from invading the city en masse by air, land and sea. Business is in full throttle. But the locals are not smiling.
Mariona gives a faint smile. “I have been living here since 1975. Four decades and I have seen this neighbourhood transform and evolve into the place that it is today. So is the whole city. As things are turning out, we are not as happy as we should”.
If tourism brings in the moolah, creates jobs and in Barcelona´s case, comprises 15% of its GDP, why the sudden open enmity against the visitors? Isn´t it a fact that tourism is giving around 100,000 jobs to its citizens? Didn´t it help Barcelona to thrive during the hard times? When the Spanish crisis struck upon everybody, the tourism sector has not only made the economy afloat but also helped it to emerge unscathed. Why the change of heart?
After the 1992 Olympics, the number of tourists increased ten-folds and lot of hotels began to sprout all over Barcelona. As a consequence, flat rentals skyrocketed overnight killing the thriving small shops and driving locals out of their flats to look for cheaper places to live. In their place, expensive clothes shops, specialty shops, shoe shops took over. Not to mention the number of apartments turned into Bed & Breakfast has quadrupled. More than half of which operates illegally.
New lady of the house
Barcelona has reached the saturation point, so declared the newly-elected city mayor. Ada Colau, A former housing activist, is aware that the Catalonian capital is facing a tourism dilemma. She fears that the city is on the brink of becoming a theme park and the quality of life of its citizens is under threat. In her first months in office, Colau has bared her plans to regulate the number of tourists coming to Barcelona.
Expectedly, such drastic pronouncements ignited outcry from the business sector. Is she out of her mind? What is she trying to do? Undaunted, Colau announced that the city hall would impose a moratorium on giving permits and licences to new hotels and tourist apartments. She also promised to go after these illegal flat owners.
This news gives Mariona a glimmer of hope. There are two flats being rented to tourists in her building. “The noise is unbearable. Every night, broken glasses, slamming doors, non-stop flushing of the toilet. Horrible! We have tried to talk to the owners but nothing good came out of it.”
“Barcelona, in my opinion, must change the type of tourists they are attracting. Or rather, we have to start educating them. Many years ago, the tourists who came here were mainly families. Now, young people come here to go on a drinking binge, go naked at our beaches and dirty our city. Ironically, these young tourists spend less money than the “real” tourists who are more interested in our culture and landmarks than getting wasted”.
“Ssssplau gràcies per deixar-me descansar” (Pleasssssse, thank you for letting me rest) says one of the street billboards that have mushroomed all over the city, a campaign spearheaded by the city hall to cut down the noise especially at night time. However, its seemingly polite yet sarcastic tone has failed to send its message across to it´s non-Catalan speaking audience who is clueless that they are the ones being shushed by the billboard.
Calle Blai in Paral.lel was just an ordinary street two years ago. It suddenly became a popular hub full of restaurants and bars catering mainly to tourists. Expectedly, the locals are not happy. Even the neighbouring streets are feeling the threat. Four blocks away is Calle Radas. Though still free from any touristic activities, the residents have already sent a strong message against any future plans of converting their street into a circus. On one of the storefronts a graffiti bluntly warns: PROU TURISME (Enough of Tourism). The last thing the residents want is to wake up one day and see their street alongside the must-see places in the city´s tourism brochures. Once silence is broken, it is broken forever.
Being the president of the flat owners´ association of her building, Marion submitted a letter of complaint last October 2014. So far, the city hall hasn’t done anything to stop the business of her neighbours. “This is depressing and disappointing. This October marks one full year since my first complaint. I will go back to the city hall and submit another letter with a cake and a candle”.
Hopefully, with the new mayor, Mariona´s complaints don´t go unheeded. “For now, I think the problem is finding the balance between tourism and quality of life for the citizens. Ada Colau´s first steps may not totally solve the problem but it will lead to something productive.”
“Perhaps hotel and apartment owners can do their share by educating their clients to behave properly and show some respect to the city.” After all, who wants to invite disrespectful guests in their house?
Before going on our separate ways, Mariona points in the direction of a streamer draping on the balcony railing just above the coffeeshop with letters so big nobody can miss it. “Silence Please. Respect”.
“In the summer, noise will be doubly terrible because we need to open our windows. I am lucky I spend my holidays in Llança every year.”
From Calle Princesa, I walk up to Las Ramblas and enter La Boqueria for a short cut down Calle Hospital. At first glance, the world famous market may not pass off as a public market where local housewives can freely come and haggle without getting in the way of someone who is doing a selfie with the shrimps! Instead, it now looks like a museum where everybody is taking photos of everything in front of them, posing next to a glass of fruit juice or a box of turrón. To control the traffic inside the market, the city hall has imposed a new timetable scheme for tourists coming in groups.
Of tourists and escargot
“Our clients are aware of our policy. No parties in the apartment. No noise after ten. But it is hard to control them. We are not there 24 hours a day. However, not all tourists misbehave. There are also good tourists,” says Jenny Villanueva of Limebuns Adventure Travel.
“Tourists are like snails. You need them to keep the balance in your garden. But an excessive number will lead to destruction. Time to hit the Control key,” says another friend Luis who after his garden was under attack of snails decided to make spicy escargot for his family lunch.
Before moving in the Catalonian capital, I was a tourist in Barelona eleven years ago. Back then, Las Ramblas was like a steady river; orderly and controlled. A decade later, it has become mad and overflowing, gushing and wild.
I admit that tourists spend millions of euros a day and it is not easy to ignore the benefits of tourism. But just like the snails in Luis´s garden, something has to be done. It is the city government´s job to attract tourists but at the same time, it is also its prime responsibility to take care of its citizens. Europe already has Disneyland in Paris but with the unstoppable rate of visitors coming to Barcelona, a Catalonian Disneyland is not far from happening.
I turn left towards the exit of the market when I overhear a woman´s voice in halting Spanish asking a fishmonger if it is okay to pose for a selfie.