By Rosa Sulleiro
Barcelona, Spain—Visitors are once again jamming the narrow streets of Barcelona’s Gothic quarter as global travel bounces back from the pandemic, reviving tensions over mass tourism in the Spanish port city.
Hotel occupancy in the city rose in April, which included the Easter long weekend, to nearly 85 percent, close to its pre-pandemic levels, according to the Barcelona Hotel Guild.
“There are more and more cruise ships, more and more tourism, more and more massification,” said Marti Cuso, a high school biology teacher who has long campaigned against mass tourism invading the city center.
“This has been a shock after two years of pandemic,” said Cuso, 32, who had hoped the city would use the pandemic pause to change its tourism model.
Cuso, who grew up in the Gothic quarter, said he enjoyed the calm that descended on the neighborhood, which is normally flooded with tour groups visiting its mediaeval buildings.
After receiving a record of nearly 12 million visitors at its hotels and tourist apartments in 2019, arrivals plunged by 76.8 percent in 2020, mirroring declines across Europe.
“People reclaimed the squares, children played in the streets again,” said Cuso.
The pandemic also showed the dangers of having an “economic monoculture based on tourism,” he said.
“The majority of residents who worked in tourism found themselves out of work overnight,” said Cuso.
Tourist arrivals in Barcelona had risen steadily before the pandemic and the tourism sector accounted for around 15 percent of the economy of Spain’s second-largest city before the health crisis.
‘Control the damage’
The boom in tourism sparked a backlash, with regular protests, including one in 2017 where vigilantes slashed the tires of an open-top tourist bus and spray-painted its windshields.
Barcelona residents identified tourism as the city’s main problem in a poll carried out that year by city hall.
“We must change the model to reconcile the two worlds. We can’t have the tourists’ city on one side and the city of locals on the other,” Francesc Munoz, who heads an Observatory studying Urbanisation at Barcelona’s Autonomous University, told AFP.
With terraces once again full of tourists drinking sangria, Barcelona’s leftist city hall said recently it plans fresh measures to tame the sector.
Access to the busiest squares could be restricted, and the circulation of tourist buses more tightly regulated.
Barcelona city hall has already cracked down on illegal listings on online rental firms like Airbnb and banned tour groups from entering the historic La Boqueria market during peak shopping times.
“Tourism is an important economic, social and cultural asset for Barcelona,” said Xavier Marce, the city councillor in charge of tourism.
“We need to optimize the benefits and control the damage. This is the debate which all European cities are having,” he added.
‘Find a balance’
Marce rejected the argument that the city did not use the two-year slump in arrivals due to the pandemic to change the city’s tourism model.
“Two years have not been lost. It is very difficult to solve the problems of tourism when there is no tourism,” he said.
Tour guide Eva Marti, 51, said she understands the concerns of residents, but believes formulas must be found to maintain an activity which provides a living to many locals.
“During this 13 years I have worked as a guide, it is harder and harder to show tourists around,” she said in a reference to measures such as rules limiting the size of tour groups to 15 people in some areas.
“We have to find a balance,” she added at a sun-drenched esplanade in the Gothic quarter before taking a tour group back to their cruise ship in Barcelona’s port.
Cuso, the anti-mass tourism campaigner, agreed with her.
“We are not asking for zero tourism. There will always be tourism, but we have to have a diversified city, where tourism coexists with other types of economic activity,” he said.