Has Tourism Ruined Barcelona?

My friend posted a video to Facebook from BBC’s Fast Track, questioning whether Barcelona has been spoiled by tourism. I commented that I could write a dissertation on the subject, and would only remark that the way forward in the tourism industry is responsible and sustainable attitudes towards tourism.

But the more I thought about it, the more I thought it was a valuable topic to discuss, and, not being a fan of engaging in debates on Facebook, I’m here instead.

Don’t worry, I’m not going to write a dissertation on my blog, but I want to address a couple things the video mentioned. I don’t have enough space to touch on everything, but that doesn’t necessarily mean I don’t think it important – I just don’t want you to all run away at the sight of an essay-post.

A little bit of background.

Barcelona’s tourism industry really kicked off in 1992/1993, after Barcelona hosted the 1992 Summer Olympic Games. Turisme de Barcelona, the city’s DMO, was only founded in 1993, and the city was relatively off the tourist map for many. Now, it’s mainstream.

In the decade after the Olympics, tourism figures in Barcelona more than doubled. According to Turisme de Barcelona, in 1990, the number of tourists in Barcelona was about 1.7 million. By 2007 this gorgeous beach city was alluring more than 7.1 million tourists per year. I’m serious.

The combination of the Olympics, an injection of funding and interest in the tourism industry in the city, and low-cost carriers were what really fueled this mammoth growth. Even Barcelona’s port was seeing record numbers of tourists – from 115,000 in 1990 to a staggering 654,000 in 2001, vaulting Barcelona into the number one rank of Mediterranean ports.

Lots of tourists in BarcelonaBarcelona’s Las Ramblas. Photo thanks to: cyriltasch 

In about a decade, Barcelona’s dot on the map just got a whole lot more prominent. Barcelona became a hotbed for major international sporting events, the number one city in the world for conferences, and is also a standard stop on the backpacking trail, a common mini-break destination for Northern Europeans, a prime place for North Americans to start (and finish) their Mediterranean cruise, and an ideal spot for young, budget travellers to go wild.

What does this mean? Well, first of all, the average night’s hotel stay has steadily decreased from 2.19 nights in 1990 to 1.97 nights in 2010. Also, the number of first time visitors to Barcelona has increased from 21% in 1990 to 43% in 2010, while the number of visitors heading to Barcelona for the third or more time has dropped dramatically, from 69% in 1990 to 30% in 2010.

As mentioned in the video, there are tourists everywhere, and the quality of tourists has changed significantly in the last two decades. Barcelona has quickly become a destination for mini-breaks – one or two night stays – and budget travellers looking for a beach party with a little more culture. But apparently that culture and authenticity is becoming increasingly difficult to experience, since many locals have been pushed out of the downtown tourist area.

Busy Barcelona beachesBeaches in Barcelona. Photo thanks to: cissell

The thing is, tourism is what revitalised Barcelona and made it the city it is today, and not all of the effects of tourism are negative. The tourism industry encouraged further development of Olympic-related infrastructure, such as a convention centre, pulled Barcelona through two global recessions, and, according to the video, employs about 10% of residents. Tourism is a fundamental industry for Barcelona, and the city relies, perhaps too heavily, on tourist dollars.

Another issue that, if you have read my blog or my ecotourism writing before, you’ll know that I feel very strongly about, is economic leakage and foreign ownership in destinations. Now, the situation is different in Barcelona than it is somewhere like Ghana, where resort food is imported from Europe, the hotel owners are all foreign, and the local population reaps absolutely no benefits from the presence of tourists. In Barcelona, it’s more a case of the infiltration of multi-national chains, like McDonald’s and Starbucks, that are pushing out local businesses. With the introduction of global chains, many travellers with varying motivations and intentions, head straight for the familiar (despite the insane costs), instead of experiencing the culture of an authentic Spanish cafe. This, however, isn’t only a problem in Barcelona, and is a much bigger issue that is and isn’t a direct result of tourism.

Now you can certainly understand why many locals want to reclaim their city. I don’t blame them, to be honest. With such a high concentration of tourists, many of whom are not really there to see what Barcelona is truly about, it’s no wonder locals have (reluctantly) moved themselves away from the city centre.

Anti-tourist sentimentsHow do you really feel? Barcelona sentiments photo thanks to: Jennifer Woodard Maderazo

So what to do?

Obviously, there’s no easy solution.

Barcelona is a lucrative destination for many low-cost carriers, so trying to limit the number of flights in operation could certainly be challenging. However, if you lower the number of low-cost carriers, and thus, budget travellers, you may lower the number of rowdy stag parties. Unfortunately, those budget travellers who are genuinely interested in culture, and, let’s say, Gaudi, will be pushed away too.

You could say that by building luxury hotels and a new marina for luxury yachts, more wealthy travellers will permeate the market, making the city more upscale. Perhaps, but how soon until Barcelona becomes the next Cote d’Azur or Monte Carlo? Driving up the prices for tourists will also do so for locals, and that probably won’t make them any happier than they already are. Besides, who wants a bunch of poncy yachties running their town?

Clearly this is a problem the DMO, as well as the local government, needs to address. Together. The DMO likes the situation right now, and probably doesn’t want to see many changes made, especially if they involve a decrease in tourist numbers. However, by making some adjustments within the marketing and management of the destination, I feel like some improvements can be made.

Beautiful Gaudi in BarcelonaBarcelona really does have a lot to offer tourists, like Gaudi. Photo thanks to: bwmullins

Let’s start with the marketing. It could be as simple as promoting the city as cultural, authentic, artistic, and impressive, not as a beach town with a good party scene. They’re on to something with this brochure from 2010. Change people’s perspective on Barcelona, because as someone who is educated, and has never been, I see it as a gorgeous, yet crowded, beach city with cool architecture, good food, interesting, yet fleeting, culture, drunk stag guys, and a ton of pickpocketing. The most compelling part of that impression is the architecture and food and culture, but I’ve managed to satiate my appetite for wicked buildings and yummy noms in many other cities.

Management. Well, it’s tough in old, concentrated cities like Barcelona and Prague, where the (old) town centre is the epicentre of tourism. Find ways to draw people out of the centre and into interesting attractions in different areas of the city, like, as mentioned in the video, London, and even Paris, do. Those cities don’t feel as overwhelmed by tourists because the things to see and places to go are relatively spread out.

Maybe regulate the bar culture in Las Ramblas (yeah, boo, party crasher right here). Sorry, but I think I have a point. Spread the bars around too, maybe. Maybe.

Oh, and, for crying out loud, deal with the pickpocketing. Seriously.

In my opinion, the situation in Barcelona only illustrates the necessity of responsible and sustainable tourism strategic planning for all destinations, not just those that are in developing nations, as we are more inclined to put emphasis on. If DMOs are able to see that all destinations require responsible and sustainable tourism planning, perhaps situations like the one in Barcelona will become increasingly rarer.

But perhaps not – I mean, with more people travelling than ever, more low-cost carriers cropping up, and more destinations becoming globalised, will it ever stop?

So what do you think about Barcelona? Did you visit before the mid-nineties? Have you been recently? Do you think tourism should be muted, or is it just an unfortunate hazard of being a ridiculously cool place in an ideal location? What about other cities?

3 Comments Add yours

  1. I wouldn’t include Barcelona in my top ten of Spanish cities, it is too crowded and the thieves and pickpockets are a constant menace. Travelling is not so much fun when you have got to be constantly alert to danger. I would recommend people to stay in Girona and travel in on the train. My favourite Spanish city? Currently Trujillo in Extremadura, just edging out Segovia and Cuenca.

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