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.
It’s all part of the city’s struggle with its role as a tourism hotspot.
If you prefer to enjoy historic European cities without a side order of binge-drinking crowds and spew-slicked sidewalks, there’s good news from Barcelona this week. The new mayor of Barcelona’s Ciutat Vella (Old City) district, Gala Pin, has vowed to crack down on the organized bar crawls that pack the area at night.
These bar crawls typically involve younger tourists handing over around €15, getting a shot or two in four different bars, and staggering around the narrow streets of old Barcelona on ever weaker legs as they get drunker. Pin has promised to clear these wayward drinkers out for good—at least in their mob form—by properly levying existing fines that haven’t as yet been fully enforced.
Anti-crawl ordinances threatening fines of up €900 actually entered the statutes back in 2012. But organizers went a little quieter, relying more on word of mouth advertising and sometimes changing routes, and enforcement has been sloppy. The idea behind the renewed clampdown is to regulate excessive tourist activity and give old Barcelona back to its residents.
Barcelona’s tourism problems are well-documented. Indeed, if you did a Google search of recent articles on the city, you’d be forgiven for thinking that it had been transformed into one giant hellhole of sombrero stalls and blaring bars that locals shun. Following municipal elections in late May, The Guardian quoted new mayor Ada Colau admitting that “more and more tourists are disappointed when they visit Barcelona” while The Economist damned the city wholesale with an article headed “Nobody goes there any more, it's too crowded”. Meanwhile, Bloomberg published a piece comparing Barcelona at length to that ever-moribund museum city Venice.
Barcelona’s visitor overload has fueled rumors that the place just isn’t really cool anymore. International weekenders seeking out something edgier or less congested are far more likely to give Barcelona’s hordes a miss and head for Madrid, Lisbon, or Athens nowadays. This doesn’t mean tourist numbers are down, but it is a warning sign that a unique city may be losing its charm.
Fortunately, it’s not just Pin that’s fighting back against the downsides of being a tourist hotspot. Barcelona Mayor Ada Colau and her colleagues showed they plan to act on their anti-tourist rhetoric last week, when they froze the granting of new hotel licenses. This freeze won’t last forever, but it will go on for at least a year and may be extended to two. It will affect 30 hotel projects on which development has already begun, including a major plan to convert 38-story skyscraper Torre Agbar into a 410-room hotel. During the freeze, the new administration will hold public consultations on a new tourism plan for the city, one that should take into account the need to promote a greater diversity of businesses and to protect housing from being gobbled up by guest rooms.
Perhaps surprisingly, this fairly drastic move has the broad approval of the hotel sector (according to newspaper La Razon), which is seeing its profits being undercut by a proliferation of vacation apartments and unchecked competition. The opposition has nonetheless criticized the plan as a brake placed on the city’s economy, with a right wing Popular Party councilor damning it as “paralyzing the city and one of its most important economic activities”.
Beyond the local politicking, there’s a broader message that other tourist cities would do well to heed. To preserve the character of exactly what your city is selling, you have to balance hunting down tourism profits with maintaining a good quality of life for locals. The most important part of finding this balance is of course that it makes locals’ lives better, but it also helps to preserve the uniqueness of a city from death by overexploitation. Barcelona may need (and welcome) tourist income, but its leaders are sending a clear message. When it comes to the local quality of life, pile-‘em-high and sell-‘em-cheap tourism can end up seeming like it comes at just too high a cost.