Barcelona’s Struggle with Tourism — Possibly Your Hometown’s Struggle Tomorrow?

By Antonio Paolo Russo

‘Overtourism’, ‘antitourism’, ‘tourismophobia’ are everywhere on the media these days and peep up in small talk at any friends and relatives’ gathering. Of course, in the academia we are quite familiar with the concept and evidence of tourism growth changing places and eventually affecting them. And we’ve been reading about residents’ perceptions and discontent with the tourismification of their habitats for ages. Now it gives a certain pleasure to observe that, eventually, even our neighbours, in-laws and political acquaintances got it.  And a certain anguish in the fact that despite all our efforts, presentations, and consultancy works, many communities are acknowledging tourism growth as a big issue when it’s probably too late, too complex, too expensive to do something about it.

Tourism’s negative impacts are not anymore analysed and made sense of only in small aboriginal communities, pristine coastal environment, or a handful of celebrated heritage towns. These were exceptional cases for scientific research, but hardly a matter for concern to laypersons across the (mostly western) world, who would still appreciate a 3% increase in tourism arrivals in their hometown announced by the local media without bothering too much about the associated inconveniences – noise at night in the most touristed areas, difficult parking at leak seasons and local shops closing down to make space for global franchises.

Yet today a far greater amount of places, and especially cities, are pointing the finger at tourism; and a far larger strata of the resident population is ready to voice its discomfort with a phenomenon that has invaded almost any aspect of their daily life. Not just the usual radical grumblers, it’s the white middle classes who discovered tourism as a problem – sometimes forgetting that they have voted for pro-tourism administrations for decades. So what happened?

Well, for one thing, tourists have not stopped growing in numbers and enjoying visiting even the most worn-off attraction sites. Tourism is so enmeshed in global flows of work and sociality that this is hardly surprising. The late John Urry and his followers have written extensively about ‘mobile lives’ and how this is shaking down established concepts of places as fixed entities and of citizenship as geographically bounded. I remember some seven years ago at a seminar, Urry anticipating much of the current debate (as usual in his career) and preparing the ground for next one: a future in which we won’t afford to travel so cheaply, and mobility will become the characterising dimension of social class.

Secondly, as again many authors warn about, tourists (and mobile populations in general) are not just increasingly interested in the everyday, in MacCannell’s backstage, but they actually dwell in it. Houses have become a tourist asset, and established notions of hotels as bubbles offering extraordinary comfort to travellers but also rationally separating and specialising space ‘for tourists’ from residents’ livelihoods have gone bust. The landing on cities of Airbnb and other ‘sharing economy’ platforms, after a first period of fascination around the fairy-tale of the ‘we help you get to the end of the month’, has crashed the housing rental markets for residents in any first- and second-league destination, and has become a fundamental tool for the speculative operations of real estate companies.

These factors explain why today so many people feel directly affected by tourism, and are ready to challenge the almost inevitable status of their city as ‘tourist place’.

Barcelona is one such cases, possibly the one where the conditions for a perfect storm have cooked up for decades: an impoverished middle class after the crisis of the 2000s, a weak society in the most central and ‘tourismified’ historical districts, a promotional model for tourism strongly in the hands of the private sector and a feeble position of the municipal administration as last-resort planner for further growth. In Barcelona, the object of our paper, the change in the public perception on tourism has – as we argue – fed an important shift in the discourse about tourism especially in policy circles, which we see as the key determinant of the political change that led Ada Colau to become Mayor in 2015.

I have lived most of my young life in Venice, one of those places about which books have been written and models have been created to make sense of place disruptions around tourism. And I have lived several years in Barcelona seeing the same beast rising, although no early warning could shake local politicians from the conviction that ‘Barcelona is different’. In our paper, Alessandro Scarnato and I tell the informed tale of Barcelona tourism becoming a place of contestation (of tourism). We take sides – we are both academics and activists – and we try to suggest that the peculiar events that led to a new political agenda on tourism, nuance a change in urban regime which might not remain a unique case. This type of research fights against the news all the time – for instance what we write about the enduring support to Colau’s government measures might not be so certain in the light of the recent political turmoil in Catalonia. Nevertheless, we hope that our analysis and reflections will help to feed further the research agenda on the fate of cities (and citizens) in the age of tourism mobilities.

Antonio Paolo Russo is tenured assistant professor with the Faculty of Tourism and Geography, Universitat Rovira i Virgili, Tarragona. Dr. Russo is author of more than 50 publications in academic journals and books on research topics that range from tourism studies to cultural and urban economics. He has been involved as member of research groups and as an independent advisor in various research projects with local and regional governments, and international institutions such as the EU, the Council of Europe, the BID and UNESCO. His JUA article, “Barcelona in common”: A new urban regime for the 21st-century tourist city?, appears in the current issue and is available with free access for a limited time. 

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