Barcelona: Tourist Go Home
A set of photographs from the Ocupació de les Rambles, Barcelona. This was a citizens protest march which combined a diverse range of groups and issues that affect the lives of ordinary people living in Barcelona today.
There were several key issues being protested: the unsustainable level of tourism and its effect on local residents, the cost of property and rents, and forced evictions of people with mortgage arrears. All of these are combining to destroy the quality of life of people living in the city, and indications are that the number of people living in the most effected areas in the Ciutat Vella has fallen drastically over the last decade.
The extreme level of tourism is a particular problem for people living in the central areas of Barcelona. In fact it is one of the several reasons why we are trying (and currently failing) to move away from the Raval.
In summer, it is almost impossible to sleep. Barcelona appears to specialise in low-budget, high-alcohol tourism, and for much of the year the streets are full of loud, shouting and singing drunks that near us appear to be creating chaos all through the night until 6am – when finally everything suddenly becomes quiet.
A further problem is the rapid shift in the character of the city. Las Ramblas used to be a characteristic street where local people would go to stroll. Now, almost all that character has been replaced by generic street stalls selling sweets, ice-creams, and cheap Chinese-manufactured souvenirs.
Another problem with the tourism is that it drives crime in the central areas. This ranges from illegal street sellers with everything from souvenirs to fake designer handbags and alcohol during the night, to more serious crimes that include street prostitution and hard drugs.
One of the key themes of the protest is the effect that tourism is having on property costs, whether for rental or purchase.
Increasing numbers of buildings and individual flats are now rented out for tourism, creating an immense pressure for space in what was already one of Europe’s most densely populated cities. The resulting scarcity results in property and rental costs that are substantially higher than would otherwise be the case, and there is also concern that this is also leading to property speculation – which further boosts housing costs.
In absolute terms, property costs in Barcelona are not very much out of line with many other large European cities. However, relative to local incomes, property is extremely expensive. Economic policies demanding large numbers of cut-price tourists, and which creates predominantly low-skilled, low-wage jobs, are partly responsible for this . There is a lot of money being made from tourism here – but its profits are made at the expense of low paid workers and the quality of life for those who live in the city.
And so now people are marching in the streets to protest:
Unfortunately, the protest is undermined somewhat by the diversity of its complaints – a consequence of the loose coalition of campaign groups that led to the march. The protest allows people to express their frustrations, but it lacks a coherent campaign behind it that can provide sustained lobbying to change the situation.
It is not sufficient to simply demand the elimination of all tourist flats and property speculation (as requested on one banner): you need to have an alternative for the people whose jobs and lives currently depend on this trade.
The city council is making some moves towards this, and has just released a new plan which aims to redistribute the tourism throughout the city to reduce pressure on the centre at the expense of other areas. Unfortunately, this plan is far from sufficient, as it still aims to increase the total number of tourists and may simply spread the problems to even more people.
Barcelona desperately needs a long term strategy to reduce tourist numbers, and to displace the bargain basement visitors with higher-end tourism – i.e. you want visitors seeking culture, rather than cheep beer and kebabs. This means increasing tourist taxes and taking measures to reduce the number of visitors. It also means putting in place a coherent plan for a balanced city economy which helps drive more secure and better paid work.
But the question is surely: is anyone listening? There was good media coverage of the march, but equally the march was too small to make much of an impact. Ironically, the marchers were heavily outnumbered by tourists, and aside from some very annoyed taxi drivers it is not clear that anyone was meaningfully inconvenienced.
Indeed, it sometimes seems as if Barcelona’s frequent street protests are themselves just another tourist attraction:
And I suspect that most tourists did not even realise what was going on…