Over tourism is something I've wanted to address in a blog for a while. And while writing a Barcelona city review article, I decided to do part one focusing on the city aspect of this (I’ll do a part 2 focusing on environment). For the city, I obviously chose Barcelona. As someone that is not only an avid traveler, but now, someone that has an actual public forum (albeit a small one at the moment) - I kind of felt like I had a responsibility to help publicize these kinds of points. To help let others know the effect we can have on a destination. I think it’s wildly important.
Barcelona is a city that has exploded onto the tourism scene in the last 15 years. It's always been a great place to visit for all the reasons I've spoken about in my article (Barcelona Review), but this is something beyond that. Low cost European airlines, increased tourism from Asia, cruise stops that do nothing for the local economy but destroy the port, and the fact that now the city is also on more Americans' lists than before - has begun to cause real problems. Yes, a lot of the development of the city itself needs to actually give the credit to tourism. But it's a double edged sword - one that many countries around the world are now dealing with, and more, struggling with. Especially in the age of Instagram when people do not visit a place to enjoy it and take it in. They go, take one quick picture at the spot so they can post for likes, and they leave. This is wildly damaging to many of these places. Too much is a bad thing. This encourages more people than in prior generations to do this behavior in a specific spot. Back to Barcelona.
Cities' infrastructures can only handle so many people. And honestly, I think Barcelona has reached that point a long time ago. Barcelona, by some counts, sees 20 million tourists a year (in 1990 it was just 1.9m per year). The population of the city: 1.6m. This is an insanely disproportionate number! The tiny streets of Barrio Gotico just can't handle the amount of people trying to walk down them. I was there in early December 2019, and could barely move in front of the Cathedral. December! Traffic has gone mad here. Traditional, famous tapas bars are so full of people I'm not sure how you order (a steady stream of people also come, see it, and walk away because there is no hope of getting in). I've run into this myself. The local cost for much of this development, like more upscale restaurants and such, can also price out the very people that live there. Even if these restaurants are very affordable by NYC or London or Beijing standards, they often are not by local Barcelona standards. Again, tourism is very good for development, and jobs. But over tourism is very bad for a city.
The apartment rental issue is another huge concern. AirBnB is a great concept - and I use it in a lot of cases. But there are some cities where it's become so pervasive in its use that it's not only something that is unregulated but easily scammed. The worst part is that these developers are buying up all these local apartments, gutting them and renovating them, and driving the costs up in the neighborhood so much that local Catalan and Spanish people can't live there anymore. We have to remember - these neighborhoods are NOT resorts. People live there. People go through their daily life there. And they are all being forced out. This trend is also contributing to a local "squatter culture". Local squatters find vacation rentals that are vacant much of the year or for a month at a time, break in, and turn them into drug dens until they are caught. This is not helpful for anyone trying to live their life in what is usually a respectable building or neighborhood. AirBnB was originally an apartment sharing site - make some money for your spare room. Like Lyft or Uber X. People are now using it to buy and own multiple apartments in a city or building, and run them like hotels - without the regulation, safety nets, or taxation a hotel has. They are often illegal businesses. It was not intended for this, though this evolution is a clever use of the platform and makes the founders very wealthy people.
Here are some more alarming facts facing the city:
-It’s been named the most polluted port in Europe. That being the water. This would be because of the chemicals left behind from all the cruise ships parking there constantly. The mayor is now taking steps to limit the amount of cruise ships that can come into port.
-The residential population has declined 11% since 2015. Barrio Gotico specifically, by over 40%. This is basically showing that the entire neighborhood is being turned into rentals.
-Park Guell, the Gaudi masterpiece, is no longer even used as a park. Up until recently, it was still an active local park. Now it’s just an amusement park for Social media users and it can take upwards of 2 hours to get in. In February. Which if you can’t get my tone, is certainly NOT peak season.
So, what can you do? Well for starters, until the city can get real policy and regulation around industries like AirBnB (which I admit, offer a valuable service and option in many cases), just avoid these in Barcelona. There are enough hotels and hostels that are regulated for you to find what you need. If you want to do even more, try and stick to Spanish and Catalan brands - that goes further to ensure the money goes back to the country, and usually more importantly, the local population providing jobs. Travel to the city in the off season. I can't believe how busy the city is now - do your part and travel there in the off season if you can. Honestly, stop taking cruises. They are not good for anything but the owners of the ships.
Stay in the different neighborhoods outside Barrio Gotico and experience much more of the real city. And more, try to give your money to as many local businesses as you can. I mean don't go crazy here and think you cannot give your money to convenience, spend your money wherever you want. But if you can buy a delicious cortado at a local cafe, or a loaf of bread with a woman that's run a shop her whole life, don't go to Starbucks, Costa, or Pret. For souvenirs? Look for Made in Spain. Avoid the other shops - it's all from somewhere else. Art Escudellers is a wonderful shop that is full of glassware and ceramics from all the different regions of Spain. Wouldn't you want something memorable like that instead?
It's tough to have to write a post like this about a city I love. But I think it's important for the people of Barcelona, that someone promoting the city or telling people to go there - also tries to convince those same readers to travel responsibly. Help make sure that Barcelona remains a great place for the visitors that come after you.The people here are welcoming. They are warm, and alive, and full of passion about their homes and culture. We as visitors should respect that. They DO want people to see their city - they are PROUD of their city and their region. You can see it in all the Catalan flags hanging from balconies. But it’s my opinion that this needs to remain THEIR city. And we the guests. Tourists cannot solve these problems alone - we are going to explore where we are able. But we CAN make individual choices about when and how we travel. As well as about where we put our money when we get there. In a city like Barcelona - you have EASY choices to do this. It’s not like you’re in some jungle village or mountain hamlet and have no choice but to use the one Starbucks and McDonalds that are there. You have real choice here, and can exercise that choice.
So for the sake of the wonderful city of Barcelona, and the many others experiencing this same issue, be sure to wander smarter when you go. I’m a firm believer that traveling the world is a privilege. Not a right. You can make a difference for those that live there, even though you are just wandering through.