- Spain was the second most visited country in 2019
- Tourism represents 12% of the economy
- Local and regional elections scheduled for Sunday
- 30 million people visited Barcelona in 2019
BARCELONA, May 25 (Reuters) – Along the Barcelona opera house, along the city’s famous La Rambla boulevard, there is expletive-laden graffiti urging tourists to “go home.”
In another district, the message is even more emphatic: “Tourism kills neighborhoods.”
The signs, which appeared in recent days, underline how anti-tourism sentiment is rising in the Spanish city most visited by foreigners, as arrival numbers return to levels close to pre-pandemic levels after the pause during lockdowns. .
The regulation of mass tourism has become a hot political issue across Spain ahead of local and regional elections on Sunday.
Several candidates, most prominently the far-left mayor of Barcelona, who is seeking a third term, have promised to reduce tourist activity, reducing cruise ship arrivals or converting hotels into social housing.
“We like tourism, having visitors, but tourist overcrowding triggers problems of mobility, speculation and gentrification that put our local way of life at risk. Therefore, we have to regulate it,” Barcelona mayor Ada told Reuters. Colau.
Spain was the second most visited country in the world in 2019, after France, according to United Nations data, and tourism represents 12% of the economy.
Barcelona, Spain’s second largest city with 1.6 million inhabitants, welcomed around 30 million visitors, including day-trippers, the same year.
When the pandemic hit, many residents breathed a sigh of relief as they saw the streets and beaches suddenly empty.
Its authorities also took the opportunity to focus on higher-value tourism, promoting the city as a high-end gastronomic destination, for example.
This year, the number of tourists is once again one step away from pre-pandemic levels, with an increase in international tourist arrivals to Spain of 41% in the first quarter compared to the same period in 2022.
Tourists arrive earlier to avoid the increasingly sweltering summer temperatures due in part to climate change and water restrictions imposed in the midst of an intense drought affecting Catalonia, could also be factors that increase frustration over mass tourism, said Gemma Canoves, a geography professor at the Autonomous University of Barcelona.
Colau believes that residents now want a different model.
“We welcome tourism, but we need to grow other strategic sectors,” he said, arguing that the restrictions imposed since he took office in 2015 have strengthened and diversified Barcelona’s economy towards new sectors such as technology startups.
Seeking to protect rents and local identity, Barcelona was one of the first cities in Europe to prohibit the creation of new hotels in the center and restrict short-term room rentals. It also closed around 8,000 unlicensed tourist apartments.
In his re-election campaign, Colau proposes reducing the number of passengers arriving at the Barcelona cruise port by half and withdrawing licenses for tourist apartments and businesses.
He also opposes expanding its airport, maintaining that Barcelona cannot absorb 20 million more tourists.
Her rival Xavier Trias, from the pro-business separatist Junts party and now tied with Colau and the Socialists in opinion polls, accuses her of scaring investors.
“Tourism is a competitive asset for a city,” Trias, who was mayor before Colau, told Reuters, arguing that her opposition to economic activity is ideological. “It makes no sense to be against tourism.”
He wants to promote family and business tourism and modify the limit on hotel openings to recover five-star projects that were canceled, although he admits that the restrictions make sense in some areas.
QUALITY OVER QUANTITY
Tourism is also a central electoral issue in the Balearic Islands, where a left-wing coalition government has limited cruises and accommodation in recent years.
“Our priority is not quantity but quality. We propose zero growth in accommodation and vacation rental units,” regional president and socialist candidate Francina Armengol told Expansión newspaper this week.
It also proposes acquiring “obsolete” one- and two-star hotels to close them or convert them into social housing.
While Barcelona’s Colau plans fewer cruises, Malaga, in the southern region of Andalusia, reached a record for boat arrivals this month.
The conservative mayor of Malaga is considering a “solidarity” tax on tourist apartments, while the far-left candidate wants to tax cruise ship passengers.
“The problems we are seeing in Barcelona will soon appear in all Spanish provinces,” warned Jorge Marichal, president of the Spanish hotel business association CEHAT.
He referred to the unregulated proliferation of tourist apartments in the last decade, which he said has led to an increase in the cost of housing and “a loss of identity in city centers.”
But even Barcelona’s approach of diversifying tourism away from iconic areas can backfire.
This month, a park that had become a popular attraction for tourists in a less affluent neighborhood was fenced off and closed at night after protests over overcrowding and litter.
“The neighbors feel like their place has been stolen,” said protester Fran Bernal. “Tourism does not provide wealth but it does have a negative impact on the area… It is a scourge.”
Reporting by Joan Faus, editing by Aislinn Laing and Alexandra Hudson
Our standards: The Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.
Joan is a correspondent based in Barcelona who reports on politics, economics and social issues, such as migration and the automotive industry’s green transition, as well as producing investigative articles. With more than 15 years of experience, Joan previously worked as a Washington correspondent for EL PAÍS, Spain’s leading newspaper, closely covering the Obama and Trump administrations, election campaigns and major news stories; in the Spanish newspapers Ara and Público of Madrid, and in the EFE news agency of Buenos Aires and Barcelona. He has a degree in journalism from the Autonomous University of Barcelona, including an exchange program in Amsterdam and New York, and has a business executive degree from IESE Business School.