Spanish city says ‘no, gracias’ to hordes of visitors from abroad
The speciality butcher’s shop at Barcelona’s Mercat de La Boqueria has been in Francisca Gabaldás family for four generations. For decades, she says, visitors have been drawn from far and wide by the array of quality produce on offer at the historic covered market.
Today, the La Boqueria is busier than ever, but many of its stallholders are less than pleased. Situated just off the city’s famous Ramblas, the picturesque market is thronging with selfie stick-wielding tourists — and its regular customers are being pushed out.
“They stand in crowds in the middle of the aisles, taking photos, or eating, the customers can’t get through!” Mrs Gabaldá tells the Telegraph, the 71-year-old repeating “Excuse me!” increasingly loudly in English to one oblivious group. “People don’t want to come here to do their shopping anymore because the tourists bother them. And it’s hurting sales.”
On a nearby stall, signs warning “No photos” and “This is not a tourist attraction” sit atop skinned chickens. The owner, Maricarmen Vall-llovera, sighs at a group by the counter with t-shirts announcing “Caccio’s Bachelor Party”, one of its number sporting a pair of plastic buttocks.
“Here we go, another stag do. At the weekends that’s all there is,” she says. Some stalls have now turned to selling items for tourists, such as takeaway juices, and are doing well. “But we want to preserve the character of the market.”
The market is one of the most visible examples of the tourism surge that has many locals rattled, with residents citing it as Barcelona’s second biggest problem after unemployment. Last year, an estimated 32 million people visited the city — at least half of them day-trippers such as cruise ship passengers — swamping its 1.6 million residents. The UK is the largest source of overseas visitors.
As the numbers have risen, so have tensions. Graffiti blaring “Tourists go home” and “Gaudi hates you” — in reference to the famed architect — has appeared across the city in recent months. Campaigns are being mounted to urge visitors to behave in a way that respects residents. Thousands have joined marches declaring that “Barcelona is not for sale”.
The city council, led by Left-wing Mayor Ada Colau who has sworn to prevent Barcelona becoming “a shop of cheap souvenirs”, has stepped in with a moratorium on hotel openings in the centre and new restrictions on accommodation licenses.
But it has faced multiple legal challenges as well as widespread criticism — both that it does not go far enough, and conversely, that it is stifling a key industry and playing to anti-tourist sentiment.
Some also argue that it is the prolif- eration of tourist apartment rentals, through sites such as AirBnB, that is the greater problem, sending rents soaring and creating tourist “ghettos”.
“People are renting out their apartments to tourists, for much more money, rather than on normal contracts,” said one Barcelona landlady, who preferred to remain anonymous. “So the rents are becoming very expensive, and residents can’t afford them and get pushed out.”
The data seems to bear out such complaints. More than 1.3 million people stayed in AirBnB rentals in Barcelona last year, a rise of 40 percent on 2015, the company said last month. Barcelona’s rents, meanwhile, have soared to become the most expensive in Spain — a struggle for many in a country where the min- imum wage is just 825 euros a month.
Gerardo Pisarello, the city’s deputy mayor — and currently acting mayor — told La Vanguardia on Monday that they were trying to stop unlicensed renting through AirBnB, on which they have previously imposed fines. “The digital platforms have come to stay. The challenge is how we regulate them so that they are in service of the public good, that they are transparent, pay taxes.”
Mr Pisarello insisted that such moves were not about rejecting tourism, but insuring its sustainability. “We like to travel and receive people,” he said. “Barcelona has to be proud to be a tourist destination. And this happens when tourist activity is compatible with the neighbours being able to stay and
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live in their barrios, to relax and have quality of life.”
“There are neighbourhoods in which there are more beds for tourists than residents,” the deputy mayor complained.
Bad behaviour by tourists — not only in Barcelona but across Spain — has also helped drive the backlash. Earlier this month two British men were arrested after a drug-fuelled car rampage in the Costa del Sol resort of Puerto Banus, in which at least eight people were injured. Recently, two drunken British tourists allegedly had sex in full view of passengers on a Ryanair flight to Ibiza.
In Majorca, residents were horrified to see a group of at least 15 young men — reported by local media to be British — walking naked on the promenade in the town of Palmanova in the middle of the day. Local politicians have demanded the group be identified and prosecuted for the exhibitionist display, which took place close to a children’s playground.
Sandrine Zolynski, a 50-year-old tourist from Luxembourg at Barcelona’s iconic Park Güell, said she believed anti-tourist sentiment often stemmed from the country’s economic problems. “It’s like Greece, a lot of people have no jobs and so people don’t feel good in their lives, and here come the tourists and they have money.” She has visited three times in the last six years, and said she had seen changes: more homeless people, more street sellers, and not as many locals out and about. “Barcelona is not for the Spanish people anymore.” Nevertheless, she had felt nothing but welcome, she said. “I want to come back.”
Mrs Gabaldá acknowledges “there are some who want to blame the tourists for everything” — that Barcelona is suffering the same effects of globalisation and a changing way of life seen in much of the world. She says that is it impossible to avoid tourism, but that a way has to be found for locals and tourists to co-exist without the city being overwhelmed.
But the prospect of a new cruise ship terminal, to be Barcelona’s sixth — a fifth is underway — only promises further friction. Meanwhile, the president of the Port of Barcelona confirmed the authority was in talks with MSC Cruceros over the terminal and had signed “a document of intentions”, although the concession has yet to be formally granted.
Many in Barcelona hope that it won’t. Ms Colau’s party, Barcelona en Comú, ran on a platform of opposing cruise expansion in the city, already the most visited cruise stop in Europe and the sixth in the world. Challenged over the proposed terminal, Mr Pisarello said that the council did not know all the details, adding only: “The administrations involved will have to guarantee that the impact on the city will be positive.”
To Mrs Gabaldá, there is little possibility of that.
“It makes my hairs stand on end,” she said. “Barcelona has got it all wrong with tourism.”
Tourists walk past graffiti reading “Barcelona theme park being built over our misery”.