Barcelona: Manteros, Tourists and Luxury Yachts

People looking at a luxury yacht behind a security fence, Barceloneta

There are few more poignant symbols of the problems in Barcelona than photographs taken around the newly redeveloped harbour area between Port Vell and Barceloneta. Here, tourists newly disembarked from cruise ships or disgorged from the flood of incoming flights to El Prat walk past rows and rows of “manteros” – illegal immigrants selling fake designer sunglasses, handbags, shoes, hats and numerous other dubious goods. In the background is an exclusive private marina where multi-millionaires dock their luxury yachts.

Illegal street-sellers in front of a luxury yacht, Barceloneta.

The blankets (mantas) are usually linked to ropes attached at each corner, so that the vendors can escape rapidly should the police arrive. But in Spain, scarce resources mean that the law is seldom enforced, and it is not uncommon to see police standing by idly on one side of a street while an illegal market operates on the other.

Half hearted attempts have been made to introduce fines for people buying from street vendors, but these also appear not to be enforced. In this specific area of Barceloneta, the Generalitat embarked on the construction of a new skateboard park with the explicit aim of displacing the manteros. Scarcely a few months later the ramps have already been removed and the problem is worse than before. That the decision was taken to displace the problem rather than to solve it is typical of the way that government here tackles issues around poverty and homelessness, and in this case was most likely driven by pressure from the marina owners. It is hardly surprising that such policies do not work.

The only way to address the problem is to enforce the laws against illegal selling – confiscating the goods and tackling the huge organisations that supply them – while simultaneously developing social policy that tackles poverty and removes the need for any person to resort to such trade. Recently there has been a push to do this, although it is still to early to see if this will be successful – in Spain, making commitments and new laws is easy, it is implementing them that seems hard.

Incidentally, no lack of execution was evident when it came to granting permission to construct that luxury marina, built on what locals regarded as public land. The fact that the developer was connected to the politicians presumably had no bearing on this decision, which went ahead despite despite strong protests from local residents.

Such failures of governance are destroying the city for those that live here. Increasingly, the super-rich live in closed, protected areas, while elsewhere people struggle to live with out-of-control bargain-basement tourism and Barcelona’s justified international reputation for petty and not-so-petty crime.

Central Barcelona has a population of 1.6 million people, and yet in 2015 the area received an astonishing 8.3 million tourists. This is a level of tourism that is completely out of control, and which distorts every aspect of life in the city.

You can see some of the effects of some of this in La Boqueria, the most famous market in Barcelona. While this remains one of the main sources of fresh food for the local residents, it is gradually succumbing to the “Disneyfication” of the city, as stands switch from selling vegetables, meat and fish to selling tourist slushies and sweets. Fascinatingly, this is most apparent closest to the tourist dominated La Rambla, wheras stands at the back of the market remain more authentic.

Tourists at the Mercat de Sant Josep (La Boqueria), Barcelona

Away from the market, a similar transition is being seen. La Rambla and the surrounding areas were once streets where local citizens would stroll in the evening, but little remains of their original character. Most traditional shops have long since disappeared, replaced by large chains such as Zara, Desigual,H&M, Mango and numerous others. Those local businesses that have survived have done so by exploiting their historical character and adapting to the tourist trade. On La Rambla itself, traditional florists have given way to stalls selling plants humorously shaped like human genitals, and miniature plants in ceramic “Souvenir of Barcelona” pots, while prostitutes and drug dealers attract a different kind of tourism by night.

Barcelona’s unique culture is dying,  and it is directly the result of those self-interested politicians that care only for the simplest and fastest route to channel money to themselves and their friends.

More than anything, this is damaging the social fabric of the city and driving movements such as catalan nationalism – a process that is unlikely to benefit the people of Catalunya while it remains spearheaded by many of those same corrupt politicians. Another consequence is a growing underground counter-culture that would happily impose anarchy, and unthinkingly replace needless oppression on one section of society with repression on another.

The solution needs a stable government, with a long term vision of how the city should evolve to support the best interests of all its population, combined with a will to implement that vision. Sadly, the political culture of Spain makes altruistic governance all too rare.

All images shot with the Leica M7 and Zeiss ZM 1,5/50 or ZM 1,4/35 lenses on Kodak Portra 400 and Ektar film, processed using a Tetenal C41 kit.

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