Spain’s mass tourism in candidates’ crosshairs in election year

 Friday, May 26, 2023 


Scrawled across Barcelona’s opera house, along the city’s renowned La Rambla boulevard, is expletive-laden graffiti urging tourists to “go home”.

In another district, the messaging is more emphatic still: “Tourism kills neighbourhoods”.

The signs, which appeared in recent days, underline how anti-tourism sentiment is bubbling up in the Spanish city most-visited by foreigners, as arrival numbers return to near pre-pandemic levels following the lull during lockdowns.

Mass tourism regulation has surfaced as a political hot-button topic across Spain ahead of local and regional elections on Sunday.

Several candidates, the most prominent being Barcelona’s far-left mayor who is seeking a third term, have vowed to curtail tourism activity, by reducing cruise ship arrivals or reconverting hotels into social housing.

Spain was the world’s second most-visited country in 2019, after France, according to data from the United Nations, with tourism accounting for 12% of the economy.

Barcelona, Spain’s second-largest city of 1.6 million people, received around 30 million visitors, including day trippers, the same year.

When the pandemic hit, many residents breathed a sigh of relief at the suddenly empty streets and beaches.

Its authorities also took the opportunity to focus on higher value tourism, marketing the city as a high-end gastronomic destination for example.

This year, tourist numbers are within a whisker of pre-pandemic levels once more, with first-quarter international tourist arrivals to Spain up 41% from the same period of 2022.

Seeking to protect rents and local identity, Barcelona was among the first cities in Europe to ban new hotels in the centre and restrict short-term room rentals.

It also shut around 8,000 unlicensed tourist apartments.

Quality over quantity

Tourism is a central electoral theme in the Balearic islands too, where a left-wing coalition government capped cruises and accommodation in recent years.

Regional president and Socialist candidate Francina Armengol told a newspaper this week that their priority is not quantity but quality.

They propose zero growth in accommodation and holiday rental units.

She also proposes acquiring “obsolete” one and two-star hotels to shut or reconvert them into social housing.

While Barcelona’s Colau envisions less cruise ships, Malaga in the southern region of Andalucia hit a record this month for arrivals by boat.

Malaga’s conservative mayor is weighing a “solidarity” tax on tourist apartments, while the far-left candidate wants to tax cruise ship passengers.

But even Barcelona’s approach of diversifying tourism away from landmark areas can backfire.

This month, a park that had become a popular attraction for tourists in a less affluent neighbourhood was fenced off and closed at night following protests over overcrowding and rubbish.

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