There’s something magical about Barca. The narrow streets of the old town, the wide avenues of the Eixample district, the sunshine, the palm trees, the curved buildings, the people. Perhaps we are simply Melbourne folk, starved for urbanisation here in Tortosa, but every time I visit Catalonia’s capital I fall in love with it a little more.
Our mini-breaks to the big smoke generally take the same shape (although you can mix and match of course):
- Arrive at Barcelona Sants station 20–25 minutes later than scheduled because the train is inevitably late (or right on Spanish time)
- Enjoy a relaxing Moritz or two at a local bar
- Find a dinner that we can’t find in Tortosa (read: dumplings or Thai!)
- A sleep in, followed by the most Melbourne brunch we can walk to
- Market strolling and window shopping in the Born or Raval
- A visit to Barceloneta for a bomba if we have space
- Perhaps a museum if I’m lucky
- A delicious glass of vermouth in a plaza, followed by dinner at a restaurant recommended by our hosts or by this book written by the chef at MoVida, Melbourne’s famous tapas restaurant.
- A bicycle around the city along the many wonderful bike paths that exist on the big wide avenues that splice the city. It is the best way to see the sights of Barcelona, hands down.
- If we have the energy, a view somewhere, either Monjuic or Park Guëll. If we don’t, a long lunch in Barceloneta or Poble Sec, before the mad rush to the train to take us home.
We have developed this itinerary over several trips to Barcelona, and I’d like to think that we are considerate guests of the city. We don’t stay out all night, yelling in the street and using the alleys as bathrooms. We don’t speak loud English or wield selfie sticks in front of Sagrada Familia. We speak Castellano when we can, and eat local. We sleep in cheap hostels, or Airbnb apartments in the Sant Antoni/Poble Sec part of town, owned by friendly young couples who are renting their apartments out to make some extra cash. We always have a good time, and it feels as though Barcelona is happy to have us.
But this is not the case. Barcelona is in the middle of a tourism invasion, and we are unknowingly contributing to it. Last year, 7.5 million people visited Gaudi’s city, compared to the population of 1.7 million people. This year, the total is expected to top 9 million. Rent is increasing as more owners share their apartments with the tourist markets. Drunken bucks parties and girly weekends away are keeping locals up at night and dirtying the streets at an embarrassing rate. Cruise ships travellers pour in and out of the city, following their flag-bearing guides around and leaving a trail of selfies and plastic water bottles in their wake.
More and more residents, including the newly elected mayor, have pretty much had enough. In Barceloneta we’ve seen signs asking tourists to consider what they are doing to the community when they visit. In La Ribera large banners ask people to ‘let us sleep’ and cry that the suburb is not a tourist rubbish dump. In Gracia the people are less subtle, with park benches decoupaged with stickers reading ‘Go home tourist. You’re ruining our neighbourhood’.
All of this seems fairly dramatic, and I will say that from my understanding, public demonstrations are a large part of Catalan politics. The issue is obviously more complex than slogans too, considering the importance of tourism on the regional economy, and the impact that the crisis has had on travel costs across Europe. Family tourism is welcome, locals say, but not the drunken weekenders. Considering we’ve only made it to midnight once in our many visits to the city, I feel as though we are not the target enemy.
But it does make me consider what is needed for a city like Barcelona to maintain its heart. If every second person is a tourist, and every second shopfront is for tourists, are you really visiting a city, or a theme park? Under such a crush of tourism, can Barcelona’s magic stay alive? Or will they, I mean we, destroy the very thing we came to enjoy? The friendly people no longer so welcoming, the mysterious alleys no longer so quiet, and the cold beers no longer so cheap.
Paris seems to have maintained its charm, but it is much larger than Barcelona, and has been a tourist hotspot for a lot longer. Tourism in the Catalan capital, meanwhile, has increased by 150% in just the last 15 years according to the Financial Times. The new mayor of Barcelona promises to clamp down on unregistered tourist apartments (*cough*) and put a freeze on new hotel licenses. Perhaps this will help. There are also council ads around the city, asking people to respect their neighbours and promoting a friendly community relationships. Maybe this is working too.
Another idea could be a ‘Don’t be a Dick’ campaign. A small pamphlet in every Ryanair, EasyJet and Vueling plane seat pocket asking visitors to remember that they are visiting someone else’s home, someone else’s city, and that some manners wouldn’t go astray. Bad tourists exist in every place, and are from everywhere, but it would be a terrible shame if they were responsible for the death of such a city.
However, maybe I’m not giving Barcelona enough credit. It has been through worse before, from the Spanish war of Succession to the Civil War, through the Franco era and even an Olympic Games. There are still plenty of quiet corners for reflection, and cozy sunny bars for a chat. The people are still warm and friendly, whether they are native Catalans, French, Indian or Japanese, and Guadi’s crazy visions still shape the city-scape with a unique wave all of their own. Surely it can handle some drunken Englishmen.
What do you think? Is Barcelona in trouble? Can a city survive an onslaught of tourism and stay the same? Let me know what you have experienced.