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.
Amid a crackdown on tourism, these are the city’s toughest measures yet.
For Barcelona’s tourism industry, the past week may have marked the end of an era. While Spain’s second city has seen galloping, almost uncontrollable growth in tourism since the millennium, the city voted Friday to adopt the most drastic ban on new vacation accommodations yet seen in any European city.
In the city center, all new hotel beds are banned, period. In a small area encircling the city center, new hotel beds will be permitted, but only to replace those in hotels that have closed. In Barcelona’s suburbs, new hotel beds will be permitted, but only under strictly limited conditions—land that has previously been earmarked for housing, for example, will be completely off limits.
Short of ordering current hotels to close, the new rules are arguably as tough as the city can get. The new law’s definition of central Barcelona, as seen in the tweeted map below is expansive. It includes everywhere from Montjuïc in the west to Poblenou in the east and stretches inland to encompass the Gràcia neighborhood and much of the Eixample. Over the next decade or so, the idea is that hotel numbers in this area will steadily decrease, leaving the streets to return to their former role as a promenade and shopping space for locals.
The law would be tough on its own, but the city didn’t even wait a full working day before suggesting even more controls. On Monday, Barcelona City Hall launched a new strategic plan for tourism, one which advocates that vacation apartments pay the top rate of property tax. The idea of this, along with the hotel ban, is to make it harder to convert badly needed residences into businesses by raising the bar for profit.
If these measures seem extreme, it’s because local frustration at the excesses of the tourist industry has been bubbling over for some time. A city of 1.6 million inhabitants, Barcelona received 32 million visitors last year, most of them concentrated in late spring and summer. These tourists are of course a cash cow, but they have pushed up the price of rents and reduced the number of available apartments for locals while providing jobs that are often poorly paid and merely seasonal. They have also squeezed businesses catering to locals out of the downtown, leaving a trail of tourist stores that are dull, generic, and sell goods with little real connection to the city’s culture. This has given some overburdened parts of the city the air of a theme park—one where you wait in line a lot and don’t have that much fun.
Locals, especially those living downtown, are none too pleased. In just the latest sign of public discontent, more than 1,000 people rallied Saturday on La Rambla, the city’s main pedestrian promenade and a strip that has steadily turned from a local living room to a tourist trap known for its (distinctly non-Catalan) “frozen paella and sangria.” Holding banners saying “Barcelona is not for sale,” the protesters sought to kick-start the re-occupation of the inner city by locals, a process that would no doubt help to reinstate some of the charm that attracted tourists to the city in the first place.
Hoteliers, who understandably feel rather put upon, have criticized the measures, pointing out that they won’t necessarily stop the worst excesses of the industry. Millions of visitors, for example, come to Barcelona only for the day, bused in from the many beach resorts that line the Mediterranean coast or arriving by cruise ship. It’s possible that, if hotel bed numbers shrink, then these day-trip visitors, who give relatively less to the city economy, could actually grow in number.
The new tourism plan seems aware of this, and looks for ways to manage all sorts of visitors regardless of whether they’re staying or not. The parking fee for tourist buses in a major car park, for example will rise from an absurdly cheap €4.50 to €34, as an experiment that could be extended to the entire city.
The city will also try out a more rigorous form of street control in the waterfront Barceloneta neighborhood and the area around the Sagrada Familia. In these areas the city will have the power to close bars that are causing noise nuisance and to ban scooters and Segways, at least for the summer season. Neither of these moves will resolve the pressures that tourism places on the city, but they at least show that the authorities are groping toward a solution.
But what of the visitors themselves? All this might be enough to put some people off visiting, sensing that they’re not entirely wanted. Out of towners should rest assured that there’s still room at the inn. The city still has 75,000 hotel beds and 50,000 places in vacation apartments. On top of this, there are an estimated 50,000 more beds available in illegal Airbnbs, despite attempts to reduce their number. It’s possible that at some point in the future, visitors might find it slightly harder or more expensive to visit Barcelona. The new laws should help make sure that the city still possesses something they actually want to see.