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Barcelona Mass Tourism – Destroying Local Culture

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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Richard

Sunday 31st of January 2016

A very interesting and thought provoking article. In recent years tourism has really boomed in Barcelona, bringing with it both the positive and negative effects that you have mentioned.

Jessica @ Green Global Travel

Monday 8th of June 2015

Great post! I have never visited Barcelona, but all the issues you mentioned here are definitely important ones! As tourists, I think it's easy to get so caught up in "seeing the sights" that we forget the importance of preserving local cultures. Thank you for this reminder!

Jackie De Burca

Wednesday 3rd of June 2015

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

Laia | colibrist

Tuesday 2nd of June 2015

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!

Lyn - A Hole in my Shoe

Monday 1st of June 2015

Chris, what a great and thought provoking article. I was in Barcelona in 2013 and glad it wasn't during the summer tourist season. Unfortunately tourism does sometimes come at a cost, but rudeness should not be something that has to be tolerated.