Back to 12 million tourists a year in Barcelona?

After two years of debate on the way out of the pandemic, Easter brought overcrowding back to the city centre

5 min
Tourist groups at the Santo Felipe Neri square during Easter Week in Barcelona

BarcelonaUp to 11,977,277 tourists and nearly 33 million overnight stays in hotels and tourist apartments. This is the record figure with which Barcelona ended 2019 (counting only official accommodation), when covid had not yet reared its head and forecasts pointed to the fact that these numbers could be repeated and even surpassed in 2020. The city's tourism councillor, socialist Xavier Marcé, defended then, as he repeats now, that the city has to work to expand the perimeter that welcomes these visitors – that is, to send them also to the periphery – and to spread their stays throughout the year, rather than concentrating on the tourist season. The pandemic made any analysis of the evolution impossible: 2020 was disastrous in all areas, including, of course, tourism, and in 2021, when restrictions were slightly eased, a total of 4.5 million tourists visited the city.

This year will be different. Easter made this evident, as 85% of hotel beds were booked – an "exceptional" milestone, according to businesses – and we saw images reminiscent of the past, such as the crowds of organised groups in the small square of Sant Felip Neri or skyrocketing prices for a drink on the Rambla, where bars no longer feel they must lure in locals. As if everything went back to exactly the same point where it was in 2019. It gives the hospitality sector, which was hit hard by the pandemic, some breathing space – but should the city's goal be going back to 12 million tourists a year? Should it try to seduce visitors with greater purchasing power, as proposed by business association Barcelona Global?

The debate generates tensions between the coalition partners at Barcelona's City Council. The PSC's Marcé is against any decrease in visitors and defends that the city already has a "very restrictive" policy in terms of increasing the number of tourist places and that full occupancy should be a "fully satisfactory" milestone. The goal is to decentralise tourism and achieve "de-massification of the centre", and if this is not yet happening it is because it is a slow process that involves changing the economic model of the most touristy neighbourhoods. On the other hand, En Comú's Jordi Rabassa argues that all tourists, wherever they stay, end up on the Rambla and the squares of the Gothic quarter: "What we need are fewer tourists in the old town and this is only achieved with fewer tourists in Barcelona". The problem is how to achieve this reduction; Rabassa does not believe it should be a question of visitors' purchasing power.

Losing squares

This same week the Fem Gòtic neighbourhood association reproached Rabassa over the "unbearable crowds" that have already been experienced these days in Ciutat Vella and that no measures have been taken in the two years' truce afforded by the pandemic. "The drama is that nothing has been done. And, if it has, no change can be felt, we are exactly where we were," laments Eva Vila, of Fem Gótic, who complains that the children of the Escola Sant Felip Neri, after months in which they took back the square, have once again felt expelled by the masses of tourists and can only enjoy it during break times, it is closed off.

Tourists on Barcelona's Rambla during the Easter vacations.

"There are so many people that they make you feel intimidated, they expel you", she explains, with the aggravating factor –she adds– that the youngest have experienced the neighbourhood as their own during the pandemic, and they now are losing it: "We are not against tourism, we know it is necessary, and we are all tourists sometimes, the problem is overcrowding and that all the shops in the area are for visitors". Dani Pardo, of the Assembly of Neighbourhoods for Touristic Degrowth (ABDT), criticises the contradiction of two years dominated by a discourse "supposedly reflective on the need to change the model" and, instead, having returned "with more unashamedly than before" to the call "for more and more tourists".

Order the groups

ERC promoted an agreement to implement a tourist surcharge in Barcelona to the rate charged to visitors, and has now suggested proposals such as forcing waking tours to take a maximum of 15 tourists, as well as studying measures for guides to have a license and pay a fee for taking up public space. The City Council promised to calculate what the price of this hypothetical fee would have to be.

"We have been warning that if nothing was done everything would return to exactly the same point," criticises ERC councillor Miquel Puig, who assures that Barcelona ought to be "very happy" to recover tourism, but not to do it in the same format as always: "We are selling the city cheaply". He recalls decisions already approved by the council, such as finding a way to encourage cruise tourism that starts and ends in the city instead of the ones that only stop over and give visitors a few hours to to tour the city and generates "many more inconveniences than benefits". The Barcelona of 2020 received 100,000 cruise passengers in August and, before covid, this figure had increased fourfold. The Port's plans, however, are to recover, if not this year the following year, the figure of three million cruise passengers a year, as defended by its president, Damià Calvet.

Rabassa says action has been taken so neighbours can retake public spaces, and cite actions such as putting back benches and fountains in squares to facilitate neighbourhood life or the investment of €6m to buy disused premises to try to encourage trade. He also points, on the one hand, to regulations that go beyond the municipal level, such as the limitation of rents, and, on the other, the "necessary co-responsibility of the private sector to also take care of the neighbourhood they exploit." And this will require, according to Rabassa, avoid setting prices like those on the Rambla or tourist guides coordinating to avoid overcrowding, as he asked them this week in a meeting: "We cannot have police on each square controlling capacity; the sector itself also has to be responsible".

Less but "better"

The key, according to tourism expert Domènec Biosca, is precisely to "order the flows". He understands that the problem of tourism in Barcelona is not so much one of numbers, but of organisation. "If you regulate the spaces and organise the sale of tickets and access to places like the Sagrada Familia well, there is no need to reduce the volume of visitors," he argues, convinced that messages such as Rabassa's do not favor the city: "Any statement against tourism is as if Zara came out to say that in their shops there are many queues and it is better not to go shopping."

Restaurant on Barceloneta beach this Easter.

Esade economy professor Pedro Aznar asks for caution over the Easter data, because urban destinations like Barcelona have taken longer to recover from the pandemic than sun and beach destinations. He points out that, in any case, the indicator to which we should pay attention is not so much the absolute number of tourists who come to the city, but the contribution that they make to the GDP: "A bachelor party of 20 young people who come on a low-cost airline and stay one night in a low-cost hotel is not the same as a family that spends a few days in a five-star hotel with a whole agenda of cultural and gastronomic activities".

For this reason, he says, he agrees with the city council's diagnosis that mass tourism generates conflicts in some areas, but he does not agree with the solutions proposed, such as only allowing the growth of hotel rooms in the periphery, as stated in the city's hotel plan. He understands that when a lower category establishment closes a higher category establishment should not be prevented from opening even if it is in the centre. He defends allowing cheap accommodation to open in the periphery for visitors with less purchasing power who prefer lower rates in exchange for being less in the centre. "A little less tourism, but with more purchasing power, could be good for the city," he concludes.