Barcelona Mass Tourism – Destroying Local Culture

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Visiting Barcelona holds many attractions for travelers around the world, yet despite the large volume of tourism that this Spanish city attracts every year, did you know that the capital of Catalonia is experiencing many negative issues associated with this? Barcelona mass tourism is undoubtedly having a detrimental effect, so it’s no surprise to hear that the patriotic locals are trying to keep the masses away from destroying the heritage they all love to cherish.

The best way for any outsider visiting a city like Barcelona to be welcomed is to show a certain appreciation for the beauty that lies within, rather than trying to take advantage and spoil the inherent look and feel of it. However, we all know that this doesn’t always happen so I wanted to take a look at Barcelona as a perfect case study to see how tourism is impacting this city!

History of Tourism

According to an article by Duran in the early 21st century, tourism in Barcelona equated to 14% of the overall economy. It’s likely that this figure is still a consistent number so it’s inevitable that tourism is a huge component of Barcelona’s rapidly growing economy.

The history of tourism in Barcelona really dates back to the 1992 Summer Olympics which changed the direction of the city’s rapid expansion. But tourism statistics are also attributed to the well-developed investment legacies of the local governments in recent decades.

mass tourism in barcelona

So let’s take a look at some numbers…In 1990, Barcelona saw only 1.7 million visitors enter the city limits! In 2012, this number had increased to a staggering 7.4 million! We are now seeing over 8 million over the last 3 years making Barcelona the 10th most visited city around the world, and third in Europe behind only London and Paris.

Mass Tourism Problems

It’s all well and good having 8 million tourists wandering Barcelona’s Ciutat Vella (Old City), but there are clearly a number of drawbacks that Barcelona has recently been exposed to. I recently read a really interesting article by Barcelona local resident, Yara Coelho from Heart of a Vagabond, who discussed this very topic of how tourism is out of control and destroying the city of Barcelona. I think Yara hit some really key points here and certainly voiced what many locals are clearly thinking.

I decided to reflect on our experiences in Barcelona and consider some of the main issues related to mass tourism.

1. Lack of Respect

I don’t care where you are traveling to, but when you enter another country or city you better be respectful of the customs, society and overall environment that you are surrounded by. Unfortunately not everyone follows these guidelines and Barcelona has been experiencing many unruly visitors taking advantage of local ideologies.

During our recent trip to Barcelona, we participated in an awesome food tour of the Gràcia neigbohood by Devour Barcelona, and our tour guide gave us a pretty cool insight into the locals impressions of tourists. As we wandered around the local market, we took several pictures of the stalls and then asked our guide if the stall owners were ok with this. She was pretty open with us when she said, “Honestly, no they are not ok with it!”

mass tourism barcelona local markets

Drunken behavior is a typical reflection of tourists visiting the streets of Barcelona. With football being such a huge spectacle in this city, locals are frequently encountering drunken tourists from all corners of the globe enjoying Barça in action both before and after matches. Knock-on effects lead to vandalism and other negative social issues around the city such as drug abuse.

2. Price Hikes

Increased tourism may helps diversify and stabilize the local economy, but at the same time it can have the reverse effect for local communities in that the price of living rise astronomically. The stereotypical multiplier-effect takes place through new money being brought into the economy leading to the creation of new jobs within these industries. But what we rarely establish is just how much these new jobs are paying. Frequently these new positions reflect in the lowest paying jobs throughout the local economy!

Have you ever wondered when you walk around a ‘touristy’ neighborhood why you are paying extortionate prices for souvenirs or even day to day products? The answer is simply to look at yourself! Increased numbers of visitors leads to an influx of tourism centered industries and this even spreads into local businesses who feel the need to raise their prices simply to survive.

barcelona city tour mass tourism

How does this affect local communities? Yet again it is another unfortunate negative response! I recently read an article in the British newspaper, The Daily Mail, that focused on the Barcelona demonstrations that took place in September 2014 around La Sagrada Familia. Price hikes among other reasons are simply making locals fed up with tourism and honestly I don’t blame them.

3. Inherently Rude Behavior

I’m fed up with being elbowed. I’m not a rude person but at times I run out of patience. (Abel Maruny, 2014 Barcelona protestor)

This was a quote by one of the many protestors during the 2014 events that took place in an attempt for local authorities to see what mass tourism is doing to the local economy. You may think that this is directly related to ‘lack of respect’ which I focused on first, and ultimately you would be correct! But I want to emphasize that this rude behavior is what really irks many of the locals and understandably so.

barcelona mass tourism market

Could you imagine walking around your home town and seeing thousands of tourists walking around like it is their very own, even wandering around naked? Me either! So why should we take this approach when visiting another country?

mass tourism in barcelona

I’m completely opposed to this and I hope that when we read posts like this it will encourage all of us to take a look at just how we travel and perhaps ALL OF US could do something a little different to really enhance our reputation.

I want to add a caveat right now that it’s a real small population of tourists that are extremely rude and I am sure most of us are vigilant and respectful. But do we go above and beyond? I will turn this over to you to take a moment and consider your response!

4. Urban Gentrification and Modernization

Arriving at Barcelona El Prat International airport for the first time, we headed to the train that would take us downtown to the heart of the city. My initial impression saw us pass through almost a rural setting with fields heavily populated with crops and a real sense of local community as we saw farmers harvesting their products. This didn’t last long as we approached the suburbs and soon after central business district of Barcelona.

barcelona mass tourism effects

Walking out of the train station, we were immediately faced with Passeig de Gracia. I will admit that my first impression was just how beautiful it was here. The hustle and bustle of city life was apparent here and I had a real feeling of a modernized society, though fortunately Gaudi’s inspiration is still apparent through the upkeep of La Pedrera and Casa Batllo.

From Tiffany & Co. to Valentino, the highest profile designer stores are located along this street and everywhere you look, there is another store opening!

mass tourism in barcelona

Urban gentrification is a familiar yet controversial concept in many cities around the world.

… any facet of urban renewal that inevitably leads to displacement of the occupying demographic. (Wikipedia)

Many of the local neighborhoods in Barcelona are seeing low-cost housing being replaced with high-rise corporate offices or apartment complexes. A real positive vs. negative comparison has to be realized here when considering the outcome of what we can term ‘urbanization’ throughout Barcelona.

mass tourism in barcelona

5. Beach City vs Cultural Haven

What is the first thing that springs to mind when you think about Barcelona? The answer to this question may very well depend on the type of traveler or dare I say ‘tourist’ that you are. Unfortunately, Barcelona is widely recognized as a beach city due to its proximity to the gorgeous Mediterranean and the pristine beaches that are available. With a perfect climate, why wouldn’t you want to experience this part of Spain!

barcelona beach city and cultural haven

However, this is NOT what Barcelona is about! There is so much more to see and experience in this city and I am delighted that the Barcelona CVB is making a real push right now at focusing on “Barcelona as a cultural haven”. From Gaudi inspiration to the rediscovery of modernism in the aftermath of the 1992 Summer Olympics, Barcelona is hub of cultural flair.

barcelona art gallery

The key point here is that tourists are missing a lot of what Barcelona’s heritage is all about. I don’t want to stereotype everyone here because clearly Gaudi’s leading attractions such as La Sagrada Familia and Park Guell are hugely popular, but what about some of those hidden gems that deserve more attention.

But perhaps this is a Catch-22 situation with some of the aforementioned issues as exposing some of the cultural gems to more tourism would lead to other negative consequences!

Summary

Having visited Barcelona only once, I am by no means an expert on tourism in this part of the world. However, it doesn’t take very long to see what is happening to such a beautiful city and I just hope that visitors to this city pay the respect that it richly deserves.

Tourism is a concept that every city strives for because it undoubtedly boosts the overall economy. Without it a city would likely be destroyed, but reflecting on Barcelona’s situation it’s possible that even with it, a city may be struggle to survive, at least from the locals perspective!

Perhaps this is being a little over-cynical because Barcelona is clearly thriving in many ways, but I hope this post provides a little more thinking material before you take a destination for granted.

Take a step back and think about the locals for a moment and consider how you would feel if millions of visitors walked into your homeland. You may just be surprised at the outcome!

Weekend Wanderlust


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Chris Boothman is the co-founder of A Brit and A Southerner. Born near Manchester, England, Chris moved to USA in 2006 where he soon after met his wife and travel partner in crime, Heather. They have since embarked on an amazing journey of travel as they challenge others to follow in their paths of working full-time but also being able to travel frequently! If you have any questions or comments, please feel free to contact Chris at [email protected]

20 COMMENTS

  1. I’ve visited Barcelona twice. One in February back in 2001 and then again in July 2006. Barcelona is considered a city that took advantage of the Olympic heritage from the 1992 Olympic Games compared to my hometown of Athens, where more than half of the Olympic Venues remain unused after the Olympic Games. I never thought that the locals there would be annoyed with the tourists. In Athens we certainly are not, but then again most people don’t spend more than 2 days here. We do have many cases of drunken tourists though (especially British ones) in Rhodes, Corfu, Kos and Crete. In these islands there are whole villages (by the beach naturally), who are not at all traditional and picturesque. They are there to cater the needs of the tourists, who apparently (a portion of them at least) don’t look for a local flavor. In these places you will most probably run into pubs than the typical Greek tavernas. Without being disrespectful here (and trying not to offend anyone as well), I believe that these tourists that cause trouble are uneducated and don’t come to our country to experience local living, or culture or anything like that. They just want to get drunk.
    Anna recently posted…3 Restaurants in San Francisco worth visitingMy Profile

  2. Very thought provoking article. Tourism does provide a double edge sword. The creation of jobs in a variety of fields and the influx of revenue and taxes which can help a city thrive, also create the negative effects of high traffic. I live in one of the most visited destination in the world and the effects of reduced tourism after 9/11 and the recession were felt by everyone. As much as locals don’t like traffic we are happy to take the good with the bad. Sadly, it’s difficult to have a place retain its charm from when it was undiscovered once it becomes popular. I hate hearing the phrase “it’s a tourist trap” being used to refer to places that only became such because the word spread. Only with very strong systems in place in the part of city leaders to preserve the right balance can the negative effects of surge in tourist population be mitigated. I have seen many cities display negative unwelcoming attitudes towards tourists as a result of the points you make in this article, only to see them beg tourists to come back years later when they have found new more welcoming destinations. I agree that the lack of respect is one of the key issues why tourists are unwelcome and I don’t know that there is a solution to that. I do think that smart destination tourist boards and city governments that approach tourism with a marketing plan to target their desired tourist demographic have a much better chance at reducing the negative effects. For example, If you don’t want the drunk tourist crowd, then don’t make it so easy for them to over-imbibe in your city. Thank you for such a great article. I hope Barcelona figures out the right balance, it is a beautiful city.
    Christina Thomas recently posted…Easy Entertaining: Exciting Summer Cocktail Recipes seen at WSWAMy Profile

    • Christina, thanks so much for your kind comments and adding such valuable information to this article! It’s clearly a difficult industry to completely understand and there is such a fine line between the huge positives and detrimental negatives associated with tourism. As I was writing this post I really felt that this could be related to many cities around the world and as you rightly say, the tourism boards really do have a tough job at fighting this fine line! The key is balance here and determining the right type of tourists that you want to attract! I love how Barcelona’s CVB right now is focused on prioritizing culture which I think is a great approach but only time will tell if it is successful and they can win back the locals opinion on tourism.

  3. Hi I have just found your weekend wanderlust link up. However I can’t find the code to add your badge to my sidebar.
    In the meantime I loved Gaude park in Barcelona – the architecture was AMAZING
    [email protected] on Tour recently posted…How to Save Money on Holiday at ResortsMy Profile

  4. Chris,
    Very good article. I visited Barcelona and other popular European cities before the recession hit the United States. It was during summer and the crowds were ridiculous. I felt like I needed to escape. I cannot imagine how a local, who has to walk and drive thru streets full of tourists every day, may fill (at least during the summer season). I understand it is a complicated situation. I agree visitors should show respect and courtesy to the locals. In my case, I try visit lesser known attractions in the places I visit, put my money in local businesses (hotels, restaurants, etc.) and try to engage with the locals. I also research etiquette rules and accepted behavior before arriving to a place. Having a humble attitude and a desire to learn about a new place can make a difference.

    I also think you do not have to be a Barcelona with millions of visitors to have this problem. Destinations in Central and South America have seen an increase in tourists due to the high prices in Europe and other parts of the world. But, those “tourists” are interested in activities such as drinking and partying (not everybody of course). They stay in close resorts and use services owned by international companies. Does that helps the communities? I am not sure. Does it cause a problem? It causes a lot of problems.
    Ruth recently posted…Lovers Point and the Carpet of FlowersMy Profile

  5. I feel so strongly about this with regards to my beloved Rome. I get so mad when I see tourists just throwing garbage on the floor and getting drunk and acting disrespectfully, especially because most times it’s something they would never do at home (of course it also has to do with how the local police deals with it, but that’s a different story). Although Italy relies so much on tourism, sometimes I would just like to see it empty 🙂

  6. A fantastic post guys – thankyou for highlighting this, because it’s an aspect of tourism that people don’t often see. It’s very hard to strike the balance between the pros and cons of tourism, especially as the population of the world is growing by the seconds, and travel is becoming one of the largest industries in the world. It’s sad that we’re all being so ridiculously entitles that we’re rude and direspectful to both people and property while overseas…obviously that’s a generalization, though I think the most extreme example of this is the full moon party in Thailand. What once used to be a pristine beach with many local communities along the shore has now become full of trash for drunk alcoholic teens who have pushed out the manjority of the locals who were once there. I don’t know the full details on it, though I saw a Nat Geo doc and it really stops and makes you think!!

    It’s all about balance of course, and I think the first step is to actually start discussing the issue and spread awareness, so thankyou for this post!
    Meg Jerrard recently posted…The Ventoura Travel App: How to Meet Locals for an Authentic City TourMy Profile

  7. I get really irked by people not respecting the local culture, on my recent trip to Thailand I was gob-smacked by some of the behaviour I observed in and around temples….
    I think this is a really important article and one that people need to be aware of whilst travelling, but I think there is a fine line because most countries need the tourist dollar to sustain their economy, imagine if millions of visitors suddenly walked out. There has to be some sort of compromise and I think sharing articles like this and educating tourists is a great start!
    Zita recently posted…Getting clothes made in VietnamMy Profile

  8. This is such an excellent and thought provoking post. I had no idea that Barcelona is the third most visited city in Europe. Although it’s so beautiful and with a great climate that I can understand why. I visited Barcelona in 1998, and the hotel we stayed at was built for the Olympics and overlooked the soccer stadium. We aren’t beach people, so we focused on the cultural sites, although I’ll admit it was just the really popular ones. The food and Gaudi architecture were my favorite parts of the city. Living in Penang, Malaysia, I was able to watch how an increase in tourism really affected its UNESCO World Heritage site. It got to the point where I’d avoid the whole area during tourist season. The traffic was horrible. My favorite street in the heritage area is becoming more gentrified and tourist focused. Small trades and businesses are converting into souvenir shops. I feel almost guilty blocking street art when I park my car, but I have to park somewhere. My biggest pet peeve is when I’m trying to do my grocery shopping at the wet market, but the stalls are blocked by tourists trying to get the perfect photo of lotus roots, long beans and other exotic produce. As a blogger, I get their desire to capture a great shot, but I just want to elbow my way in and get my chores done for the day.
    Michele {Malaysian Meanders} recently posted…Farewell to FAO SchwarzMy Profile

  9. It’s a really interesting discussion to have…obviously you can’t stop people from visiting a particular country, but an increase of tourism has both positive and negative effects. It’s tough to see places get more touristy to appeal to a particular crowd from other places in the world rather than staying authentic and true. It would be annoying as a local to deal with obnoxious tourists. As someone who obviously loves to travel and will visit Barcelona someday, I always try my best to be respectful and not be disruptive. I’d love to visit the more cultural aspects of Barcelona, for sure!
    Lauren | Justin Plus Lauren recently posted…A Romantic Gondola Ride in Venice with TingglyMy Profile

  10. Thanks for this post! I did not know that Barcelona is the third most visited city in Europe, and tenth in the world! I am from there (even though I live abroad now) and I agree with these points. In my visits to my family in Barcelona I have seen the increase of tourists year after year, I have heard people in markets complain about tourists taking pictures and touching food (which they do not buy), seen the prices rise… it is a pity that some people do not know about respect, if all visitors shared your point of view it would be much better 🙂
    Thanks again!
    Laia | colibrist recently posted…Jervis Bay: beautiful beaches and cute kangaroosMy Profile

  11. Hi Chris,
    Great post indeed. Barcelona is a fantastic example of what can happen and how locals can feel when tourism reaches this “height” and too many visitors lack mindfulness.

    Not only is it a very interesting and sadly true post, it is also timely as one of Spain’s biggest newspapers has featured an article around the same topic. You can read it with the help of a Translate tool, or not ..if your Spanish is good enough! 🙂

    http://www.eldiario.es/politica/Colau-plantea-limites-turismo-Barcelona_0_394060765.html

    Years ago when I worked in Crete, there was a very similar feeling from many locals about tourism there, in the island’s hotspots. It was viewed as kind of a necessary evil.

    Cheers
    Jackie
    Jackie De Burca recently posted…Vinaros Spain Travel GuideMy Profile

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