| 30 November 2023, Thursday |

Spain’s mass tourism in candidates’ crosshairs in election year

Graffiti imploring visitors to “go home” is scribbled on Barcelona’s opera building, which is located on the city’s famed La Rambla street.

In another neighborhood, the message is even more emphatic: “Tourism kills neighborhoods.”

The signs, which have arisen in recent days, highlight how anti-tourism sentiment is rising in Spain’s most visited city, as visitor numbers resume to pre-pandemic levels following the slowdown during lockdowns.

Mass tourism regulation has surfaced as a political hot-button topic across Spain ahead of local and regional elections on Sunday.

Several candidates, the most prominent being Barcelona’s far-left mayor who is seeking a third term, have vowed to curtail tourism activity, by reducing cruise ship arrivals or reconverting hotels into social housing.

“We like tourism, to have visitors, but tourist overcrowding triggers problems of mobility, speculation and gentrification that put our local way of life at risk. Therefore, we have to regulate it,” Barcelona Mayor Ada Colau told Reuters.

Spain was the world’s second most-visited country in 2019, after France, according to data from the United Nations, with tourism accounting for 12% of the economy.

Barcelona, Spain’s second-largest city of 1.6 million people, received around 30 million visitors, including day trippers, the same year.

When the pandemic hit, many residents breathed a sigh of relief at the suddenly empty streets and beaches.

Its authorities also took the opportunity to focus on higher value tourism, marketing the city as a high-end gastronomic destination for example.

This year, tourist numbers are within a whisker of pre-pandemic levels once more, with first-quarter international tourist arrivals to Spain up 41% from the same period of 2022.

Tourists arriving earlier to avoid increasingly sweltering summer temperatures due in part to climate change and water restrictions imposed amid an intense drought affecting Catalonia, could also be factors increasing frustration over mass tourism, said Gemma Canoves, geography professor at Barcelona’s Autonomous University.

Colau believes residents want a different model now.

“We welcome tourism but we need to grow other strategic sectors,” she said, arguing that restrictions imposed since taking office in 2015 have strengthened and diversified Barcelona’s economy towards new sectors such as tech startups.

Seeking to protect rents and local identity, Barcelona was among the first cities in Europe to ban new hotels in the centre and restrict short-term room rentals. It also shut around 8,000 unlicensed tourist apartments.

In her re-election campaign, Colau proposes halving the numbers of passengers arriving at Barcelona’s cruiseship port, and stripping licenses from tourist apartments and shops.

She also opposes expanding its airport, maintaining Barcelona cannot absorb 20 million more tourists.

Her rival Xavier Trias, from the separatist, business-friendly Junts party now tied with Colau and the Socialists in opinion polls, accuses her of scaring investors.

“Tourism is a competitive asset for a city,” Trias, who was mayor before Colau, told Reuters, arguing her opposition to economic activity is ideological. “It makes no sense to be against tourism”.

He wants to promote family and business-driven tourism, and to modify the cap on hotel openings to win back five-star projects that were cancelled, while conceding restrictions make sense in some areas.

  • Reuters