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Tackling Tourist Tension in Barcelona

Written by Laura

Although Barcelona is a city welcoming of foreigners, it´s no secret that it is reaching its limit on frustrating tourists. In a 2017 survey conducted by the urban planning department in the Ayuntamiento de Barcelona, citizens were asked to identify their top concerns in the city. The overflow of tourists came in second place after unemployment.
While tourism is economically beneficial (the sector makes up 11 percent of Spain’s economy, and unemployment rates are lower during the tourism season), an overflow of tourists can have negative effects on many levels of city life. Around 32 million tourists visited Barcelona in 2016, according to The Telegraph. Just think of that in contrast to the city´s population of 1.6 million – it’s overwhelming.

Fruit stand at the Boqueria Market / photo by Laura Place

Overcrowding on La Rambla
A lot of frustration centers around areas in the historic heart of the city, such as La Rambla and the Gothic neighborhood, which are more tourist-oriented, overcrowded, and difficult to traverse than ever before. If you visit the Boqueria Market on La Rambla, for example, buying food is an arduous process of weaving through groups of tourists taking photos. For locals wanting to actually shop there, it is understandably frustrating. The central sidewalks of La Rambla are similarly touristy, lined with far more kiosks and American stores than local businesses.

Illegal tourist rentals
The problem also stems from an increased number of tourist rentals and accomodations, some legal and some not. In a 2016 survey of around 4,000 Barcelona residents regarding opinions on tourism, 64.9 percent of respondents from Ciutat Vella, home to the Gothic and Raval areas, agreed that the neighborhood had too many hotels, hostels and tourist flats. Between January 2016 and May 2017, the city issued closures for 2,189 unlicensed tourist flats, although there are estimated to be thousands more in the city. If you are renting a touristic apartment for your stay, make sure the apartment you are renting is under a touristic license and is not offering touristic accommodations illegally. The Ayuntamiento de Barcelona offers a search engine to check whether your tourist rental is legally licensed. The city has cracked down on inspections of these rentals, and if  an inspector visits your rental and finds no touristic license, you can be thrown out.

City action
In 2015, the local government attempted to address the problem of mass tourism in the city through their cap on overnight tourist numbers that generated backlash from the hotel sector. More recently, in 2017 the Ayuntamiento de Barcelona created a more comprehensive strategic plan centered around managing tourism and enhancing its benefits rather than setbacks for the city, called the Barcelona for Tourism 2020 Strategic Plan. The plan aims to address the reality of Barcelona as a city of tourists through various sustainable management models designed to maintain Barcelona´s heritage while also allowing tourism to flourish.

The number of visitors to famous sites in Barcelona in 2017 / infographic via Ayuntamiento de Barcelona

Transforming La Rambla
The city has also tasked an interdisciplinary team called km-ZERO with creating a project that will address issues of housing, accessibility and business on La Rambla in order to enhance its social and urban use by the community. Their plan encompasses solutions to balance tourism and local use in the area, one idea being to promote local businesses in the face of overwhelming tourist-based commerce and another to revisit housing policies. A memorial dedicated to the victims of the 2017 terrorist attack is also planned. Executive planning is set to start in the fall of 2018 until the work starts in the beginning of 2019.

The km-ZERO team working on plans for La Rambla / photo via Ayuntamiento de Barcelona

What to keep in mind as a visitor
Whether you’re visiting Barcelona for vacation, work or a bachelor party for the weekend, it’s important to be a responsible tourist and respect the city you are visiting. A lot of tension also comes from foreigners seeing Barcelona as just a place to party, and treating it as such. Of course you’ll want to visit the city’s popular locations (they’re popular for a reason), but you will have a far more enriching experience by also visiting local businesses and actually purchasing products rather than just taking photos. Engage with the city!

Main photo via Ayuntamiento de Barcelona 

About the author


American journalist living temporarily in Spain. Her passions include news and feature writing, Spanish language and culture and the outdoors.

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