Barcelona's tourist crisis's round zero

About 70% of Carrer Ferran's premises are closed, as it bids farewell to its oldest establishment, pharmacy La Estrella

4 min
Blinds lowered in Ferran Street

BarcelonaUp to 47 shuttered businesses - nine of which have a "to let" sign - in a street with about seventy premises. This is the image of the pandemic offered by Carrer Ferran, the main street that connects Rambla de Barcelona with Plaça de Sant Jaume, and whose rate of economic recovery, lacking the usual tourist dominance, has fallen far behind the city's average, which already operates at 87%. The centre is lagging behind at a different speed, with a level of recovery of about 60% - and this is noticeable in a flagrant way in a Carrer Ferran devoid of the usual bustle of visitors, with only a minority of shops resisting. "The trouble is that this has ceased being a neighbourhood and the shops have been focusing on tourists," laments Angela Calvet, from the artisan leather goods store Calpa, after surveying the state of the street.

Souvenir shops, kiosks, bars and hotels like the Rialto remain closed. And soon, so will the oldest establishment on the street, pharmacy La Estrella which will close for good. In this case, however, it is not because of the lack of tourists, even if they have also noticed the sharp drop in sales; it is because the landlord does not want to renew the lease.

Pharmacist Mónica Piñol in front of pharmacy La Estrella

The pharmacy opened in 1840 and, according to the book of emblematic stores Guapos per sempre it was run by, among others, the grandfather of politician Manuel Carrasco i Formiguera and has unique elements such as a porcelain rose window, a well-preserved mosaic floor and a wooden roof. Parts of the establishment are protected by the City Council's heritage listings, such as the façade and the interior furnishings, which have been preserved. All this heritage will stop serving its original purpose in the next few days because no agreement has been reached with the landlord, who owns the entire building. The final goodbye will surely be next week.

An "atypical" pharmacy

"The landlowner does not want to renew the lease. For more than a year the pharmacists have been trying to reach an agreement but there has been no way", explains Mónica Piñol, who stands in for the official pharmacist, Anna Enrich. She took over the establishment in 2010, when the previous owner, Carles Mallol, retired. And then there were already suspicions about whether the new pharmacy would keep the original elements. Now the license has been moved to a new pharmacy in Villa Olímpica and staff will continue to serve customers in Banys Nous street. For years the pharmacy on Carrer Ferran has been "atypical", Piñol admits

Here the most usual is not that clients enter with a doctor's prescription to collect medicines, but rather that tourists wanting to buy sunscreen or drugs against difficult digestions. "It's a pharmacy where we give a lot of advice and receive few prescriptions," the pharmacist explains. During the pandemic, despite being allowed to stay open, they saw how the clientele plummeted: there were no tourists and very few people still actually lived in the area.

The pharmacy will close and with it a little (more) of the street's history will be lost. There are few survivors, such as the Sant Jordi bookshop, also condemned to move because of a hike in rent or the fine arts shop, which has been there since 1969. "Those who have closed down will not return," Enric Moj from Belles Arts Ferran predicts. He reckons those who are open are the few local businesses which survived the years of mass tourism, all threatened by possible increases in rent that would make it unviable for them to continue.

Moj explains that landlords were asking for monthly rentals of up to €18,000 or €25,000 and that this is obviously not within the reach of any trader. "It is the chronicle of a death foretold," he says, adding that many landlords have preferred to rent premises to "mafias" who can pay higher rents while administrations have given them little support. "The pandemic has made a natural selection," adds Josep Morales, of Librería Sant Jordi, convinced that the businesses that have closed down offered nothing of too much value to the city

"Carrer Ferran is ground zero of the impact of the pandemic," says Gabriel Jené, of Shopkeepers Association Barcelona Oberta, who is in no doubt that the shops will soon fill up again because, he says, the city's future is at stake here: "If the centre dies, Barcelona dies". And what will open? "It will depend on the type of tourism that comes. It will be whatever suits the new demand," he replies.

This diagnosis is not shared by the Association of Neighbours of the Gothic Quarter, which refuses to speak in terms of quality of tourism and puts the focus on quantity. "What the neighbourhood needs is fewer tourists and more residents," defends Martí Cusó. He sees the crisis caused by the pandemic as the time to change "the city model" and abandon the exponential growth of tourism of the last decade: "It is not possible to change the commercial model only through a land use plan; instead, public housing is needed, as well as regulation of commercial rental prices, a halt on promoting tourism and protection of the trade that has resisted".