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 Airbnb 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 million licensed, short-term rental flats in the city, and about 7 million 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.