Barcelona hopes for return of mass tourism

 Tuesday, October 19, 2021 


The Catalan capital is suffering from a sore lack of tourists. While city officials are calling for vacationers to return, critics of mass tourism find it difficult to make their voices heard.

Typically, there are so many tourists at the Sagrada Familia that it’s nearly impossible to take a photo without someone stepping into your frame.

With nearly 5 million visitors annually, the Sagrada Família was the most popular attraction in Barcelona before the COVID-19 pandemic hit. It was also the symbol of the city’s mass tourism boom. 2019 saw a record number of 14 million vacationers visit the city- more than ever before.

Between 2010 and 2019, the number of passengers going through the airport went from just under 30 million to 53 million. But during this time, much of the local population became resentful of the rapid rise of tourism, resulting in regular protests.

An unwonted calm has also descended upon the old town. Before the pandemic, masses of vacationers would stroll through the Gothic Quarter on any given day of the week.

Now, it’s even possible to stroll on your own through one of the narrow streets and hear the echo of your own footsteps.

The consequences of months without tourists are painfully obvious across Barcelona. A number of stores have even gone out of business on one of the city’s most important tourist streets.

The situation is critical after so many months without real [tourism] activity said Manel Casals, Director General of the Barcelona Hotel Association.

Normally, an average of 60,000 people stay in the city’s hotels each day during the summer, but this year, there were only 13,000, he said. The industry has suffered losses of €2.7 billion ($3.1 billion) since the start of the pandemic.

The debate about mass tourism in Barcelona is exaggerated says tourism director Xavier Marce defiantly.

In Barcelona, he says, the tourist sites are located primarily in a very small area. This leads to conflicts with residents and undesirable developments, such as the disappearance of traditional retail, he says.

In the historic centre, there are now entire neighborhoods with only souvenir stores, restaurants and hotels.

The tourism department has launched several projects to this end. For example, vacationers can now use the Check Barcelona app to see how crowded the most important sites are at any given moment. If the lines in front of the Sagrada Família are particularly long, visitors can simply opt to go elsewhere.

The sightseeing bus, on the other hand, which previously only covered the typical attractions, now also travels through districts that are almost completely off the beaten track for tourists- like the former industrial district of Poblenou, which has transformed into a hip, artistic neighborhood over the past several years.

Although the city has strictly regulated the approval of new tourist lodgings, there are currently no plans to reduce bed capacity. Tourism department head Marce puts it bluntly saying it is nor their goal to reduce the number of tourists.

Manel Casals of the hotel association isn’t interested in reducing the number of visitors. Instead, he says, more efforts should be made to attract business travelers who spend more and don’t clog up the streets of the historic center. There’s only one Sagrada Familia in the world and everyone who comes to Barcelona wants to see it.

The ongoing construction of the basilica has been financed primarily by ticket sales.

In fact, the lack of tourists has now meant that its completion has had to be postponed.

The work was originally meant to be finished by 2026, the 100th anniversary of Antoni Gaudi’s death- a whole 144 years after building began in 1882.

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