The gentrification of Barcelona is not a new story. If you live in cities like New York City, Mexico City or Hong Kong, then perhaps you know this story too. Or if you see your local cafes increasing the price of an espresso or worse, including strange drinks like a unicorn frappe or avocado latte, then you are definitely part of this story.

To many, the city of Barcelona is synonymous with the success of its football team (not RCD Espanyol of course), Gaudi or a beautiful city with eternal sunny weather. All this is true, but there is another side to Barcelona that often gets negated under its Instagram-friendly demeanor (the third most Instagrammed city in Europe, after London and Paris, according to a 2018 study). Many tourists do not realize that tourism, together with gentrification and urbanization, has become a strain on the city.

Too much tourism

In 2018, during my Erasmus semester in Barcelona, I came across a piece of sticker art stating, “Tourism kills the city”. Although graffiti screaming “Tourist you are the terrorist” or “Stop destroying our lives” are increasingly commonplace, 86.7% of residents still think tourism is good but demand greater regulation (Diaz, 2017).

Obviously, locals do not want tourism to boom at their expense. Particularly in Barcelona, unsustainable tourism has had unsavory repercussions. One of these repercussions is the diminishing social cohesion in local neighborhoods or barrios.

As such, the city administration faces the challenge of balancing the social interests of the locals with the economic benefits of tourism. This is especially relevant as the current mayor, Ada Colau was elected on her promises to improve tourism, housing and inequality.

A tour of this essay

First, we examine how tourism has facilitated a profit before people mentality in barrios and its subsequent impact on social cohesion. Second, we consider some of the benefits for locals that tourism has brought. Third, we propose that a shift towards high-value tourism to reduce the strain of tourism on barrios. Fourth, we recommend that grassroots activism can improve social cohesion and promote more authentic points of interaction between locals and tourists.

Cash Rules Everything Around Barcelona?

 Despite the controversy, it is undeniable that Barcelona has reaped economic benefits from tourism. Amidst an economic slump, the tourism sector has been critical in supporting Barcelona’s economy, accounting for 12% of the GDP and employing 400,000 people (Burgen, 2017). However, these economic benefits were not attained without cost. In this case, the encroach of tourism into barrios instills a mentality of profiteering, which ultimately destroys the social cohesion of barrios.

First, barrios are transformed by the economic motivation to profit from tourists. When the inflow of tourist’s dwarves the local population, local businesses have every economic incentive to prioritize tourists over locals as their primary clientele. In 2016, nearly 32 million tourists visited Barcelona (Plush, 2017). This is colossal compared to Barcelona’s population of approximately 1.6 million in 2016 (Ajuntament de Barcelona, 2017).

Hence, it becomes rational for businesses to raise prices to take advantage of the large supply of tourists. Consequently, this sets forth a chain reaction that ultimately leads to the destruction of cohesion in barrios. For example, in 2013, locals were outraged when Parc Güell, a public park and UNESCO World Heritage Site designed by Catalan architect Antoni Gaudi, introduced an entrance fee for all visitors, in a bid to profit from tourist visitors (Smith, 2013).

Second, the increase in prices eventually leads to the increase in the cost of living for locals. As price-takers, tourists are susceptible to price-hikes from businesses. Even if they are aware of being charged exorbitant prices, they accept it as a one-off transaction or a holiday indulgence. Ironically, many of these businesses themselves have to pay higher costs of rent and labor for being located in gentrified barrios. Therefore, they have little choice but to raise their prices. As a result, businesses shift to cheaper barrios when they are unable to cope with the increase in living costs. As the barrios of Barcelona become saturated with tourists, locals are pushed further to suburbs such as Hospitalet or Sabadell.

An abandoned cinema near the Sagrada Familia
An abandoned cinema near the Sagrada Familia

Third, the rise in the cost of living inevitably affects the cost of housing. The influx of large volumes of tourists has increased demand for housing. This has prompted real estate companies and investors to acquire property. Subsequently, buildings have been bought or rent has been raised to price out locals from their homes and barrios. Gradually, this facilitates the inflow of wealthy residents and an outflow of middle-class locals.

This flux of haves and have-nots disrupts stable communities and enhances social segregation. As barrios become gentrified, this is likely to lead to segregated enclaves and even gated communities. The result is urban segregation in Barcelona which increasingly appears to be based more on income inequality than on ethnic features (Lopez et al., 2017).

“Stop Pobresa” graffiti along Avinguda Diagonal at Poble Nou

Fourth, barrios are additionally affected by informal economic motivation. The informal economic sector has grown together with tourism. The explosion of tourism in Barcelona has provided a strong demand from tourists for informal economic activities to supply. Moreover, the increased cost of living has pushed locals to find alternative means to support their income.

In Barcelona, the informal economy manifests itself across barrios in various forms. On occasions, the informal economy is personified by the manteros, street-vendors hawking everything from selfie-sticks to cans of beer. On other occasions, the informal economy takes the form of illegal tourist rentals like Airbnb. However, it is the more corporate operators like Airbnb and Homeaway instead of relatively ‘small-time’ actors like manteros, who have come under fierce reproach from locals. Subsequently, the city administration has enforced stricter regulation like a temporary cap on the number of new registrations for rentals and heftier fines for violations (Lomas, 2016).

A mantero selling sunglasses near Plaza Espanya

Eventually, for those who do stay in their barrios, it is not the same neighborhood as they once knew. Local residents feel alienated in their own city because their barrios undergo rapid change and become less familiar. Older buildings get torn down and are replaced quickly by shopping malls and hotels. When the middle class, who form the bulk of the population, become victims of high property prices and have to relocate, a significant part of the city becomes transient. They uproot their homes to start anew in another barrio, in what Ferdinand Tönnies would consider to be a disruption of the existing Gemeinschaft and while the entrance of tourists replaces it with Gesellschaft. Overall, the high demand from tourism has triggered economic changes that has made barrios more profit-driven and less people-oriented.

Not everyone hates tourism

While the economic opportunities have had externalities like diminishing the social cohesion in barrios, they have also brought economic benefits. This is echoed by Joan Pere, the President of The Association of Barcelona Hosts. He underlined that rental flats spread the benefits of tourism to less-visited barrios, provide income for hosts and allow locals to share the joy of living in Barcelona (Edwards, 2015).

Instead of tourists staying in generic international hotel chains which monopolize the bulk of economic benefits, platforms like Airbnb allow locals to rent out their space to benefit from tourism. This could boost the local economies of less-wealthier barrios while enabling tourists to stay and experience a more authentic dimension of Barcelona.

For example, Airbnb reported that more than half of Barcelona’s hosts said leasing out a room helped them make ends meet. Moreover, Airbnb claimed that this contributed €430 million in 2013 to the city and provided employment for more than 4,000 people (Edwards, 2015).

Although this could create a win-win situation for both locals and tourists, it could also lead to an over-saturation of tourism in neighborhoods. Clearly, regulations by the Sectoral Planning Committee of the Taula de Turisme have taken this possibility into account. As a result, they have stopped granting licenses for highly tourist saturated regions like the Gothic Quarter in order to nudge tourists to less congested neighborhoods. Hence, regulation should channel the tourist demand to barrios where supply is untapped.

For example, under the Special Tourist Accommodation Plan, the Hyatt and Four Seasons were disallowed from building hotels in the neighborhood of Poblenou (Thiessen, 2017). In this case, the city administration could have instead redirected the Hyatt and Four Seasons to build in less congested parts of the city to re-distribute the economic benefits of tourism among the other barrios in Barcelona.

However, the potential for profiteering from Barcelona’s neighborhoods could lead to tenants being evicted, when buildings are sold to commercial developers or landlords raise the rent. Fortunately, current regulatory measures have taken great strides in protecting residents from being forced out by corporate interests.

For example, in response to the shortage of affordable housing, Mayor Colau’s administration fined two investment funds €2.8 million for hogging unoccupied buildings in Barcelona’s center (O’Sullivan, 2019).

Beyond curbing exorbitant rent and unoccupied buildings, regulation must strive to maximize the social welfare of locals while balancing their ability to profit from tourism. Hence, to make tourism more sustainable, the number of tourists needs to be reduced without forgoing the economic benefits. Similarly, to improve social cohesion in barrios, grassroots activism can be encouraged to restore barrios to being more community-centered.

Lesser tourists but higher-value

In a simplistic manner, to make tourism more sustainable, the number of tourists must be reduced, without decreasing the economic benefits. Hence, regulation must focus on drawing more high-value tourists. While the moral implications of favoring more high-value tourists are controversial, it may be practical and momentarily required.

In rapidly attempting to draw more tourists, Barcelona, attracted predominantly “drunken, budget tourism”, which brings little economic benefit but great social harm (Edwards, 2015). Between 2012 and 2016, nearly 60% of tourists came for holiday purposes (Ajuntament de Barcelona, 2017). On average, these tourists spend €284.90 euros while tourists on professional visits spend €464.10. Notably, between 2014 and 2016, the number of tourists on holiday visits was nearly thrice the number of tourists on professional visits.

Additionally, tourists on professional visits are much less likely to cause social harm. Besides, the revenue brought in by these high-value tourists may adequately cover the externalities of social harm by unruly tourists. Therefore, to attract more tourists on professional visits, measures like waiving the tourist tax could be introduced.

Moreover, regulation should be complemented by efforts to re-brand Barcelona as more of a professional destination. Revamping Barcelona’s branding to be perceived as business hub instead of just a tourist getaway may draw more investment into developing its business infrastructure instead of building more tourist attractions.

For example, rebranding efforts could focus on more professional events like the Mobile World Congress or showcasing its stature as home to the 5th largest number of startups in Europe (with 1100 startups in 2017 according to Wired). In the long term, this may attract more professionals than tourists.

Barrios for the locals, by the locals

While regulatory action can mitigate the social costs of tourism, Mayor Colau’s emphasis on grassroots activism could hold the key to restoring social cohesion in barrios. Particularly, empowering barrio residents to participate in bottom-up initiatives could strengthen the social fabric of their neighborhoods. Moreover, this may have positive spillover effects on tourism.

Recently, demonstrations from groups like Arran (Level With) and La Barceloneta Diu Prou (Barceloneta Says Enough) expressed their disdain towards tourism. However, such confrontational behavior might not be constructive in making tourism more sustainable. Hence, a softer and more inclusionary approach could help channel public frustration towards tourism into avenues to improve social cohesion in their barrios.

First, grassroots activism could reduce the tension between foreigners and locals. By reducing antagonism towards tourists, locals will be able to more objectively appreciate the benefits and assess the costs of tourism. This opinion is supported by Platform for Tourist Rentals, an industry-funded campaign group in Barcelona. They have published several videos refuting claims of a link between antisocial behavior and tourist flats to reduce stigmatizing foreign visitors (Edwards, 2015). Hence, grassroots activism should address hostility towards tourists to make it conducive to explore more sustainable forms of tourism. Perhaps grassroots movements could tap into the soft power of local Catalan culture to untie its residents and keep excessive signs of tourism in check.

When tourists sense decreasing hostility from locals, they might feel more confident to venture beyond their comfort zone of tourist attractions. Hence, they might be more inclined to rely less on typical tourist activities like pub crawls. Instead, they might consider participating in more authentic alternatives like Pétanque tournaments. Such events create an opportunity for locals and tourists to get to know each other. Identifying common experiences will reduce antagonism towards tourists and even bring barrio residents together.

Second, when hostility towards tourism has decreased, grassroots activism could initiate avenues for cultural exchange. Grassroots groups could organize events in their barrios to revive community spirit. The Catalan Tourism Board could sponsor grassroots efforts like inviting tourists to learn more about Catalan culture by organizing meals together or small tours of neighborhoods.

This would provide a platform for grassroots groups to showcase their culture and restore humble barrios into proud strongholds of Catalan lifestyle. In return, this may draw more tourists, but they will be well aware of the passionate pride Catalans have in their tradition and the need to respect it. Additionally, festivals like La Cabalgata de Reyes Magos (Three Kings Parade) can reinvigorate the community spirit by bringing both locals and tourists alike together to celebrate Catalan culture.

A difficult balancing act

When tourism is in excess, it results in Gesellschaft dominating over Gemeinschaft. This results in the disintegration of cohesion in barrio. Especially in this situation, property rights in Barcelona bear more Marxist significance, in terms of the struggle against capitalist ambitions of transforming barrios into profiteering opportunities. Social segregation results when residents are spatially separated based on their capacity to enter the housing market (Griffith, 2015). Consequently, social relations are destroyed, and the very soul of barrios becomes lost.

The dilemma for regulators is how to prevent barrios from being gentrified, even though this may inadvertently draw more tourists to experience a more authentic Barcelona atmosphere. Ideally, regulation favoring high-value tourism would reduce the number of tourists. This could make locals less hostile to tourism. Moreover, long term solutions like price ceilings for rent are necessary (Lomas, 2016).

Although democratically elected representatives have control over the general administration of the city, they are likely to face opposition by the managerial elite who control vast commercial empires in Barcelona. Therefore, it remains imperative for the city administration to resist the pressures of big business from tourism and strengthen the social fabric of barrios.


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