Bye Bye Barcelona?

Most of the world sees the city of Barcelona as a paradise of architectural wonders, cutting-edge cuisine, kilometers of postcard-perfect beaches, and more.  While there is no denying this...
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Most of the world sees the city of Barcelona as a paradise of architectural wonders, cutting-edge cuisine, kilometers of postcard-perfect beaches, and more.  While there is no denying this reality, there is also another reality – the Catalan narrative, which is being subsumed by the massive growth of international tourism in Barcelona.

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The Guardian reports that recent years have seen the number of tourists in Barcelona more than quadruple, from 1.7 million in 1990 to 7.5 million in 2013. Barcelona is now the third most visited city in Europe, with the annual number of tourists outnumbering residents four times over. Bye Bye Barcelona is a 2014 documentary about the consequences of mass tourism for the city´s development and its effects on the residents. The documentary suggests that mass tourism has made Barcelona a victim of its own success.  Available on Youtube, it has accumulated over 40,000 views and triggered an intense debate over Barcelona´s unprecedented growth in tourism.

While locals are likely to say that tourists are overrunning every part of the city, the most dense tourist populations are concentrated in the neighborhoods of El Born, El Gótico, El Raval and La Barceloneta.  Persistent noise, illegal tourist flats and rising real estate prices have become significant concerns for those living in these neighborhoods.  According to The Guardian, even the neighborhood of Gràcia, which is located somewhat farther from the city center and considered a more family-friendly district, tourist-oriented projects have been underway.  For instance, in Plaza del Sol, construction workers are hammering away inside a three-story building in order to turn it into a 14-room hotel with a restaurant and a pool. In February of this year, several hundred people attended a protest against the construction of new hotels in the district and occupied soon-to-be hotels.  Hand-painted flags, posters and graffiti on buildings with messages such as `Go back home tourists´ or `Barceloneta is not for sale´ are becoming an increasingly common sight as one strolls down the cafe-lined narrow streets in the city’s central neighborhoods.

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It is difficult to say whether Barcelona’s tourist bubble has already popped, or is on the verge of exploding. Either way, the city has struggled to achieve consensus on how to best regulate and reduce the rapid growth of tourism.  However, the election of Barcelona’s new mayor, Ada Colau, earlier this month, is projected to usher in big waves of change. Colau emerged onto the Spanish political scene in 2013 and became one of the country´s most prominent voices of protest against the eviction of hundreds of thousands of Spaniards from their homes. The new mayor of Barcelona, who hails from the leftist party Barcelona en Comú, has an ambitious plan that includes creating more jobs, tackling corruption, fighting home evictions, and, finally, devising a plan to address Barcelona’s tourism crisis. The Guardian reports that Colau has vowed to put a moratorium on new licenses for hotel and tourist apartments because their proliferation has led to a spike in rents in the central neighborhoods.  Moreover, Colau has proposed to use the tourist tax, which is currently used for tourism promotion, for the provision of basic services to the neighborhoods most affected by the influx of tourists.  An easier solution would be to limit the number of tourist cruise ships that enter the city, and a more challenging solution would be to crack down on the thousands of tourists that are residing in Barcelona illegally.

While Barcelona remains the idyllic and modern world-class city that it is often projected as, it only takes a small amount of prodding beneath the surface to reveal an increasingly agitated and outspoken resident population against the massive growth of tourists and tourism-oriented projects in the city.  Do the Catalans have what it takes to prevent Barcelona from becoming the next Venice?

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Opinion
Kayla Chen

Kayla works for a global human resources consulting firm in Washington, DC. She received her Master's in International Relations from the Barcelona Institute of International Studies. Previously, she worked for the U.S. State Department, in international education, and public relations and communications. Fluent in Spanish and proficient in Mandarin Chinese, she has spent significant time traveling and working in Latin America, mainly Argentina. Prior to joining the main WIB team, Kayla was a regular International Affairs contributor for more than a year.
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