Barcelona, a City at the frontlines of Overtourism

We were walking through parts of the Barrio Gotico in Barcelona when I guide stopped us to say, “let’s keep to one side so that the residents can pass through with their daily work. Some people are real residents and we want to be good tourists.” This was perhaps on of the few times I’d heard a guide specially mention to their tourist the need to be considerate of the locals – something that most people would assume was a given. The only other time I heard anything that might vaguely pass off as a similar sort of instruction was in Amsterdam.

All throughout the trip in Barcelona, we heard many times from many different people suggestions that the locals themselves were tired by the

The similarity between both Barcelona and Amsterdam is both cities are current buckling under overtourism (and here) just the sheer number of people who visit them – 34 million to Barcelona in 2016 and 5.3 million to Amsterdam in 2017.

These are not the only two cities that face a problem of overtourism, there are many others such as Dubrovnik (Croatia), Venice (Italy), Tokyo (Japan) and Maya Bay (Thailand). Overtourism is a word that has come into the tourism lexicon only recently (2012 to be exact, although it only became popular in 2017), to described a situation where there are too many visitors to a city such that locals can no longer live in it.

The La Boqueria Market, turned from a genuine market into a tourist icon

Eateries and cafes that the locals go to are replaced by tourist traps; markets cease to sell produce but instead stock trinkets; it becomes increasingly impossible to rent a house because the private home room rental market (AirBnB for example) has taken over; hotels and hostels lose business despite increasing tourist numbers because many visitors go to short-term leasing services such as AirBnB.

In short, the city ceases to be a city for the locals but rather a glorified shell for tourists. This is a problem of surplus since overtourism implies that the city is attractive in the eyes of tourists for a visit. And is in a way massive kudos to the tourism agencies of those countries. Many of these cities have strong cultural pulls, Barcelona – for the football club, Italy’s major cities – for the art and culture, Dubrovnik – for the sheer beauty of the city’s location. Pair that with globalization, the rise of budget airlines, market disruptors such as AirBnB and an increasingly wealthy world with disposable income to spend (in spite of all the news, the world is living better than it ever has) and you have a recipe for tourism going overboard in some places.

Remember that there was a time, when going overseas was a luxury that few could afford since flying from one place to another cost so much. Tourism is an industry like any other and focuses very much on growth to make money, the after effects of tourism on the city are considered as issues for the municipal governments to handle. The factors above and the economic incentive provided the ingredients behind a massive tourism boom.

Prior to extremes of overtourism, tourism was seen as a positive thing for the society and the economy since more tourists meant more money for businesses and tourism growth was good for the local economy. However all things brought to their extremes will turn out bad and that is exactly what happened with overtourism. As more tourists arrived, spaces in prime real estate were sold so that souvenir shops and the like could be set up in place. Once or twice, a process like that may be an intriguing development but when it happens again and again the locals become strangers in their own houses. This has led some locals to rise up and turn activist.

We stood looking out at the city from the Castell Montjuic, I noticed a large wharf and pointed at it. “That’s where the cruise ships come everyday,” said the staff member who was showing us around, “there are about 4 ships a day they arrive in the day and leave at night.”

“Where do they come from?”

“Oh France, Italy, Greece, all the other coastal countries.”

One of the major targets to face the wrath of overtourism, at least in Europe, are cruise ships. Cruise ships are day trippers andThese are considered tourism polluters because they do not stay in the city overnight, but flood into the city during the day to go for tours and take pictures instead of purchasing good and souvenirs over sometimes even dining in the city.

While FC Barcelona was a major football club, the city was never a tourist must see until the 1990s, after the 1992 Olympics. It was only after the global spotlight was shone on it that the municipal authorities brought modernising activity to it and gave the whole city a full facelift.

The 28 years since then has turned Barcelona from a plucky city on the Spanish coast into a global tourist destination. In Barcelona, overtourism has drawn the wrath and consternation of locals against the tourists (here and here). Tourism is not as bad if it is evenly spread out over a year, but this is not the case with cities like Barcelona where tourism numbers are high all-year round and spike even more during the Summer month, at an even smaller level cruise ships mostly arrive in the city all at the same time every day too meaning a complete wave of people floods the city at the same time.

Overtourism is bad for the locals, but also bad for tourists since the essence and energy that the tourists arrived wanting to see is long gone, meaning that the dream holiday is still but a dream. The Barcelona of pictures and today is not the Barcelona that Gaudi built his masterpieces all over and that inspired Modernisme, Las Ramblas is not the charming street that poet Federico Garcia Lorca once wished would never end. Barcelona is a different beast then what they dreamed about.

Then there is the fact that Barcelona is one of those cities that ends up drawing a minority of tourists that behave like bufffons – going to Barcelona for stag parties, getting drunk in the streets and becoming a public nuisance, going to the city to take drugs, being responsible for a rise in prostitution numbers.

In a way, everyone suffers when overtourism occurs and as some experts suggests things will get worse before they can get better. Governments are getting in on the act too, or at least they are talking about it.

But while governments talk, what can we do to be part of the solution? This blog has some good suggestions: 1) Attempt to travel to a place outside of the regular tourist season or even weekends, 2) do some research before hand to investigate the real parts of the city, not just the tourist traps, 2) stay in legal accomodation where you are required to pay a tourist tax, this helps the municipality pay for services to keep the city running, 4) come in wanting to learn and appreciate the culture, 5) check out other places off the regular tourist map.

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