Imagine you’re walking down the street in the city you’ve been dying to visit for months, or even years. You’re in a good mood because you’re on holiday; the sun seems to shine brighter than usual and life feels good. But then you turn a corner and stumble upon a piece of graffiti that reads: “Tourist you are the terrorist”.
You ignore it, attributing it to some angry guy with a sad life who probably doesn’t get out all that much. But a few metres ahead you see another troubling line: “All tourists are bastards”.
A few steps further on: “Stop destroying our lives!”
And after that: “Why call it tourist season if we can’t shoot them?”
Now it seems more than just an isolated incident. You keep walking, but the spring is gone from your step. Perhaps the sun isn’t that bright today, after all.
As a Spanish citizen who has lived in Barcelona for six years, I’ve seen the huge increase in tourism and witnessed the growing counter-movement driven by locals, which is starting to get referred to as “tourism-phobia”. I first saw this kind of graffiti about three years ago, as I waited for a traffic light to turn green on my way to work. Right in front of me, sprayed on a pedestrian crossing next to Sagrada Família, I read the words “Tourist go home”. This was just the tip of the iceberg – angry graffiti and passive-aggressive messages started appearing all over the city. Recently, anti-tourist protests have hit headlines. But why all the hate? Isn’t this backlash way over the top?
On one hand, the answer is yes, it is. But on the other hand, it’s a reaction that has been triggered by the swelling numbers of tourists, creating massive overcrowding – the city has been stretched to breaking point. Barcelona is the twentieth most visited city in the world, and it keeps breaking its record number of visitors each year, going from 27 million tourists in 2012 to more than 34 million in 2016. That’s an increase of over 25 per cent in four years.
Low-cost flights, as well as the popularisation of home-sharing platforms such as AirBnB and Homeaway, which tend to be cheaper and more convenient than hotels, have contributed to the growing number of sightseers. In turn, investors are speculating and buying entire buildings – some where families have lived for decades – to cater for this growing industry. Landlords are seeing an opportunity to gain up to four times as much as they would for renting to long-term local tenants, and 40 per cent of Barcelona’s tourist apartments are illegal. This is leading to a shortage of housing for those who live and work here and driving up rents, which increased by 16.5 per cent in 2016.
Tourist numbers have swelled by over 25 per cent since 2012 (AFP/Getty Images)
Now imagine you live in Barcelona – and life is becoming more expensive all the time. On Friday morning, like every week for years, you go to buy some groceries at the typical market in your neighbourhood, La Boqueria. But lately it is so crowded with tourists that it’s hard to navigate the aisles; a trip that used to take you 20 minutes now takes over an hour. At the meat stand you run into your neighbour from the building opposite, an old lady who’s lived there for decades. She looks upset: it turns out the owners are selling the whole building to an investor who is planning to turn the historic building into luxury apartments for wealthy foreigners, and the tenants have six months to leave. Where will this lady go? She was paying “old rental” prices and she can’t afford the new exorbitant market rates.
The next day, Saturday, you decide to have lunch at the old place around the corner, which is one of the few left where a typical tapa is served. But there’s a long queue of people waiting outside, most of them tourists. Since you aren’t willing to wait half an hour to eat uncomfortably in a crowded restaurant, you head home and eat whatever’s in the fridge. In the evening you head to a pub you love with some friends, only to find it’s gone: it’s been replaced by a touristy restaurant. On your way home, you hear drunken youngsters speaking a foreign language as you approach your street. As you turn the corner, you realise it’s the same group of people that rented the flat above yours, which you know doesn’t have a license for holiday rentals, and they’ve been partying for days, disrupting your sleep. Now one of them, a guy, is facing the wall beside the doorstep across the street. He’s peeing. And it’s useless to tell them off – you’ve tried before and they just laugh at you. Your neighbours will have to endure the smell of dry pee for days.
In the end you decide you can’t take it anymore and start looking for a studio to rent in another area which isn’t as crowded. But after months of searching, you give up: the few ones on offer are either too expensive, too far from your office, too small for the price or too dodgy. You feel so much a stranger in your own city that it makes you angry. And one day you feel the need to express it somehow: writing angry graffiti fuelled by your sense of desperate isolation.
These events are a typical part of life as a Barcelona citizen, so it’s no wonder locals perceive tourism as their biggest problem according to a recent survey by the government – even above unemployment and working conditions. Over half of the population thinks the city is at full capacity and that no efforts should be made to attract more tourists.
However, attacking visitors isn’t the solution in a city where tourism represents the main source of income. Actually, 86.7 per cent of locals see tourism as a positive thing, but many think it needs to be further regulated. As does the local government, which has acknowledged the situation and taken measures to try and contain it. Besides the tourist tax applied to accommodation for spending the night in the city, the licensing and building of new accommodation (hotels, hostels and apartments) has been paralysed since 2015, and earlier this year a special urbanism plan for tourism (PEUAT) was passed, whereby the licensing of tourist accommodation is restricted depending on the area. The aim is to distribute tourists more evenly throughout the city and decongest the most central and affected districts.
Hopefully these measures will achieve their goal and help ease tensions, but only time will tell whether tourism and local life can reach a balance. Meanwhile, you shouldn’t be afraid to visit: most locals are aware that this is an administration problem and will treat you in a friendly way. If you’re visiting the city, being respectful, trying to interfere as little as possible with locals’ lives and choosing an accommodation option that doesn’t have a direct negative impact – or at least that isn’t illegal – can go a long way.
Because Barcelona does not hate you – just your pee.