Feargus O'Sullivan is a contributing writer to CityLab, covering Europe. His writing focuses on housing, gentrification and social change, infrastructure, urban policy, and national cultures. He has previously contributed to The Guardian, The Times, The Financial Times, and Next City, among other publications.
Neighborhood organizers in the city's Barceloneta neighborhood band together to demand a crackdown on an unruly tourism industry. Is this the beginning of a new civic revolution?
In Barcelona this month, local frustration with “binge tourism” has finally boiled over. As this Citylab piece from earlier this year noted, residents of central Barcelona have become increasingly frustrated with the stress that often-rowdy mass tourism is placing on their neighborhoods. In the last 10 days, this frustration has spilled out onto the streets, as citizens of the quayside Barceloneta neighborhood have massed to protest against the noisy tourist element that flocks to its streets. Jammed between Barcelona’s ancient heart and the city’s urban beach, Barceloneta has become a focus for party tourism and all its attendant noise and hustle, with illegally sublet holiday apartments particularly resented for the sleep-spoiling noise they bring to residential streets.
This August, locals have made their resentment known through a string of demonstrations big enough to be dubbed the “Barceloneta Crisis," attacking noisy visitors and the authorities that have let them flourish unchecked. Some of these demonstrations have been pre-organized daytime affairs with 1,000-plus attendees. Others have been impromptu late-night street routs, with residents hitting the sidewalks to harangue visiting street-drinkers and tourists partying on balconies with placards and megaphones. Things haven’t turned ugly, but they’ve come pretty close.
The protests have proved enough of a shock to shake the city into swift, albeit long-demanded action. Earlier this week, mayor Xavier Trias promised an inspection and crackdown on illegal holiday apartments in La Barceloneta. As of today, 24 holiday apartments in the area have been taken out of business. The apartments that fall into the illegal niche are typically those that have been rented out as residences but then used by tenants exclusively to sublet to visitors. Laws governing such holiday sublets are also due to be revised in October, which should now see a substantial tightening up of legislation.
This bubbling up of resentment still doesn’t mean that Barcelona resents all tourists. The city’s 7.4 million annual visitors support a large part of the local economy and most are given credit for being more interested in the city’s culture than the opportunity to vomit up cheap booze on somebody’s doorstep. What the protestors really want is a “different model for Barcelona tourism” that prioritizes residents' needs over grabbing tourist cash and offers more than a low-cost race to the bottom.
The Barceloneta protests may have a specific local issue at heart, but they’re far from isolated. They are, in fact, just one part of a wave rippling through Barcelona, a city where citizen actions are getting both increasingly vocal and effective. This spring, protestors and police clashed over an attempt to evict longstanding squatters from the unofficial Can Vies community center in the Sants neighborhood, a prelude to demolishing the 19th-century building. Defended by a group of squatters and locals who valued the center’s 17-year presence in the community, the city backed down and called off the riot police. Now thanks to a crowdfunding campaign that secured €90,000 in just over a month, Can Vies is being given a new lease of life by a top to bottom renovation.
Then there is the Barcelona’s just-announced new candidate for mayor: anti eviction activist Ada Colau. An effective campaigner against Spain’s extremely harsh repossession laws, Colau stirred up some controversy by staging peaceful protests outside politicians’ houses and eviction sites. She is now standing with the loose and recently formed left coalition Guanyem on a social justice and community-rights platform. With Colau’s campaign is in its early stages, it would be fantasy to say Barcelona is due to get a street protester ensconced in the mayor’s office. Still, with Guanyem and Colau’s public support substantial, they could at the least push candidates from Catalonia’s mainstream parties away from the top few places in the May 2015 mayoral election.
Depending on where you stand politically, these actions are either evidence of a grassroots movement finding its voice or of a city cracking under pressure. But at their heart, they suggest that we should expect more neighborhood-level activism to come out of Barcelona in the near future.