For Barcelona, Tourism Boom Comes At High Cost

Mar 1, 2017
Originally published on March 6, 2017 10:00 am

On a mild, sunny afternoon, hordes of tourists stroll down Barcelona's famous tree-lined pedestrian avenue, La Rambla. They love it — the weather, the tapas, the laid-back bohemian vibe. One tourist from Australia says he's visited Barcelona 12 times in 10 years.

But the city doesn't always love them back.

In January, thousands of Barcelona residents marched down La Rambla and "occupied" the entrance to a hotel there, to protest the volume of tourists and gentrification in the city.

Such rallies began in the summer of 2014, after a group of Italian tourists rented a flat for a bachelor party in an old fishermen's barrio on Barcelona's seafront. One morning, three of the visitors were photographed gallivanting around the neighborhood grocery store — stark naked — as elderly neighbors looked on, aghast. Their antics made the local newspapers and sparked protests which have spread across the city in recent years.

That incident became a symbol of tourists gone wild in Barcelona, and gave birth to neighborhood anti-tourism groups.

"The promotion of tourism, and all these tourist apartments, is actually driving neighbors out," says Martí Cusó, a member of one anti-tourism group in Barcelona's Gothic quarter, where his family has lived for three generations.

He takes NPR on a tour of his barrio, where the dry cleaner and local tailor have closed, their storefronts converted into a 24-hour mini-mart and souvenir shop. A city square that used to be entirely residential is now lined with hotels. The only remaining apartment building has just been renovated into luxury condos, mostly to be used as vacation homes for wealthy foreigners.

"All the community that was living here has been broken — completely broken," Cusó says.

At his local market, the centuries-old La Boquería, most people are not buying vegetables.

"They crowd the passageways, taking photos, so regular people can't do their grocery shopping," says Rocí Gayo, who has sold fruit at La Boquería for 20 years. "Out of 20 tourists, if I'm lucky, maybe one will buy one piece of fruit — but no more."

Two years ago, City Hall banned tour groups of 15 or more people from entering the market altogether on Saturday and Sundays before 3 p.m. — peak shopping hours.

Tourism does bring revenue, and has helped Barcelona grow. It currently makes up about 12 percent of Barcelona's economy — up from less than 2 percent before the 1992 Olympic Games showcased this city to the world.

But tourism revenue is not shared as equitably as many locals would like. As old rent controls expire, restaurant and hotel chains have gobbled up mom-and-pop, family-run businesses. With more than 30 million annual tourists in a city of 1.6 million residents, there may be more tourist rentals in Barcelona than year-long leases for full-time residents, says Janet Sanz, the deputy mayor in charge of urban planning.

"It started with the '92 Olympics, and it's opened to the world," Sanz told NPR in an interview at her office. "We understand that other people love our city. But we're becoming a tourist theme park, every time a grocery store closes and a souvenir shop takes its place. People live and work here. It's not just a fun weekend place."

In January, City Hall banned new hotel beds in the historic quarter. Late last year, it slapped the home-sharing companies Airbnb and HomeAway each with 600,000-euro fines ($634,000) for listing unlicensed tourist rentals.

Such companies have become targets of public anger over rising real estate prices and a diminishing supply of year-long leases. Homeowners can make much more money renting short-term to tourists than long-term to locals.

Sanz estimates there are 10,000 licensed, short-term rental flats in the city, and about 7,000 illegal ones.

"We agree with them on the need to crack down on unwelcome commercial operators," says Patrick Robinson, regional director of public policy for Airbnb, who traveled from London to negotiate with Barcelona officials. "But the city also needs to come to terms with the fact that Barcelona residents are using space in their homes to generate much-needed income at a time of economic stress."

Starting this spring, Airbnb has agreed to limit homeowners to one property listing per person in the city center. But it disputes the city's rule that every listing must have a tourist license — which requires a long bureaucratic process — especially if you're renting out part of your own home.

That's the new sharing economy, Robinson says, and Airbnb helps disperse tourists throughout the whole city.

"More than 70 percent of guests who travel to Barcelona with Airbnb say they want to live like locals do. That is why so many people are now staying in areas that don't normally see tourists," Robinson says. "This is a different kind of tourism."

The city frames the licensing dispute as a security issue and encourages tourists to ask landlords if they have a tourist license before they rent. Otherwise, city inspectors could evict tourists from unlicensed apartments at a moment's notice, Sanz warns.

Late last year, Sanz and her City Hall colleagues conducted a citizens' survey. Residents responded that their No. 1 concern is still unemployment — currently at around 10 percent — even though the Spanish economy has rebounded from the economic crisis.

Their No. 2 concern: Too many tourists.

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Barcelona, Spain, is one of the most visited cities in the world. And there are plenty of draws - the beach, the food, the art. They lured more than 30 million people last year to a city with fewer than 2 million residents. And that has some locals wishing the tourists, at least some of them, would just go home. Lauren Frayer reports.

LAUREN FRAYER, BYLINE: It's a mild, sunny day in Barcelona. And tourists are strolling down the city's famous pedestrian thoroughfare, La Rambla.

PHOEBE SUN: Barcelona is beautiful. (Laughter) I like the weather.

ARNOLD JOSUE: It's very laid-back and easy-going people. And it's pretty good money-wise, as well.

LEAH PALMER: It's been fab (laughter). We've had a really good time. I'm just having a walk.

FRAYER: That's Phoebe Sun from China, Arnold Josue from Australia and Leah Palmer from England. But on this same street a few weeks ago, the atmosphere was very different...


UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTERS: (Foreign language spoken).

FRAYER: ...As locals occupied La Rambla to protest the volume of tourists here. Such rallies began three summers ago, after Italian tourists on a bachelors' weekend were photographed gallivanting around a grocery store stark naked. That incident became a symbol of tourists gone wild in Barcelona and prompted Marti Cuso to join a neighborhood protest group.

MARTI CUSO: All these buildings you see here, this one for example, but also this one and all these ones were homes just 10 years ago. OK? Now, this building there is a hotel.

FRAYER: He takes me around the city's Gothic Quarter, where he, his father and his grandfather were all born. The local tailor and dry cleaner have closed, converted into a 24-hour mini-mart and souvenir shop.

CUSO: This means that all the community that was living here has been broken, completely broken.

FRAYER: At his local market, the centuries-old La Boqueria, most people are not buying vegetables.

ROCI GAYO: (Foreign language spoken).

FRAYER: "They crowd the passageways, taking photos. And nobody can do any shopping," says Roci Gayo, who's sold fruit here for 20 years. In that time, restaurant and hotel chains have gobbled up mom and pop businesses. There may now be more Airbnb rentals here than leases for full-time residents, says Deputy Mayor Janet Sanz.

JANET SANZ: We understand that other people can love our city. But we want the city be a city to live. These is our challenge, to protect our city.

FRAYER: Protect it from turning into a theme park, she says. In January, City Hall banned any new hotel beds in the historic quarter and slapped fines on unlicensed rental apartments. Airbnb has agreed to limit the number of properties any single homeowner can rent out there.

PATRICK ROBINSON: We agree with them on the need to crack down on unwelcome commercial operators.

FRAYER: Patrick Robinson is an Airbnb spokesman.

ROBINSON: But the city also needs to come to terms with the fact that Barcelona residents are using space in their home to generate much-needed income at a time of economic stress.

FRAYER: In a recent survey by City Hall, Barcelona residents said their number one concern is still unemployment. But number two, they said, is too many tourists. For NPR News, I'm Lauren Frayer in Barcelona.

(SOUNDBITE OF NIGHTMARES ON WAX SONG, "LES NUITS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.