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Tourism: Barcelona’s Cautionary Tale

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Tourism: Barcelona’s Cautionary Tale

“This is not a city to live in. It’s a theme park like Prague or Venice where’s there’s no local life left.” That’s the comment of long-time resident Picart in the new documentary, “Bye Bye Barcelona,” lamenting the rise of mass tourism and how it has transformed his city.

In the past decade, Barcelona has tripled the number of visitors to its Mediterranean shores to more 8 million a year, and is now ranked the fourth most visited city in Europe (after London, Paris, and Rome). But it’s a tourism boom that has an increasing number of skeptics.

Filmmaker Eduardo Chibás’s documentary has caught the edge of that discontent. His goal in making the film, he says, was “to serve as counterweight to the much repeated idea that tourism is a win-win business. This documentary is about what we lose because of it.”

What is lost, according to the residents, tour guides, and academics interviewed, is the social fabric of the city, its authenticity, and dynamism — the very thing the tourist industry touts. As the visitors flood in, the historical heart of the city is slowly hollowed out. The loss of local commerce to tourist shops, the overcrowding, the traffic, and the noise all contribute. But the rise in rent and food prices is often the deciding factor that forces long-time residents out.

What’s left, these interviewees said, is a theme park — a “papier-mâché city.” One resident talked about the “loss” of the iconic promenade, La Rambla, and the famous Boqueria market, which are so overwhelmed by hordes of tourists that locals no longer go there.

La Boqueria — Source: ArmanFlint on Pixabay

Park Güell is offered as another example. With 25,000 visitors a day, the Gaudí-designed park started to charge an 8-euro entrance fee to the monuments area to control the numbers and reduce wear and tear. Local residents protested that the park was donated to the city, and never meant to be commercialized (although they themselves can still enter for free).

Yet tourism is a lucrative business, and is generally considered an inoffensive way for cities to generate revenue, which is then often put to good use improving infrastructure and maintaining monuments. For Catalunya, tourism represents 12% of GDP, bringing in 20 million euros ($27.2 million) a day and creating 100,000 jobs.

Last year, international tourism grew 5%, according to the World Tourism Organization. That’s 52 million more people traveling the globe. Tourism is expected to grow another 4.5% in 2014.

Mass tourism, however, is a relatively recent phenomenon. Cheap air tickets, a global culture that encourages people to see the world firsthand, and a growing middle class in places like China have converged to create a bump in tourist travel that shows no sign of abating.

Barcelona first appeared on the tourist map for most people after the 1992 Olympics. The city poured in massive amounts of investment. The games were a huge success, and the world fell in love. In 1990, 1.7 million people visited Barcelona. This year the anticipated 8 million is considered a conservative estimate and doesn’t include the tens of thousands who disembark from cruise ships every day.

Along with its ranking as fourth most visited European city, however, it is also the fourth most disappointing tourist destination, said Santiago Tejedor, a junior lecturer at Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona, interviewed in the documentary. The reason is overcrowding, he said.

As the Catalan government continues to market Barcelona to the world, how it manages the influx it has created will become more and more critical. In fact, the Barcelona “model” is spawning copies elsewhere, Chibás says. Ecuador launched a global tourism campaign in April and hired people from Barcelona to guide its strategy. Madrid is keen to boost it own tourism stats.

What can be done to mitigate the impact? “Quality tourism” is an idea often floated — attracting tourists who spends more money and stay longer than the low-cost-airline crowd, who arrive in droves, and leave a light financial footprint.

Marketing the city as a hub for conferences and congresses is another frequent suggestion. It’s something Barcelona has already done with great success. In 2011, it hosted more conferences than any other European city.

Creating innovative policies that take into account residents’ input is another, more nebulous, suggestion. However Barcelona decides to respond to its global popularity, it is among the top 10 smart cities in the world — and that smart designation has been well-earned. Hopefully, the will extend the idea to a smart tourist management that keeps the city’s natural rhythm in balance.

Originally published as Tourism: Barcelona’s Cautionary Tale on UBM Future Cities

Tech journalist, electric engineer. Based in Barcelona, covers international tech events, and Smart Cities.

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