The Easter holidays were, for many, a return to the past in Barcelona. Mass tourists and income for the sector have returned, but also the old concerns of the residents, who regret that the pandemic has been wasted to rethink a model they consider unsustainable.
Hotel occupancy during those days in April — which reached 85%, according to the Barcelona Hotel Guild — exceeded the sector’s expectations, even approaching the threshold prior to the health crisis.
“There are a number of economic lobbies that want to get to that level, and it’s getting closer and closer. More and more cruises, more and more tourism, more and more overcrowding… This has been a shock after two years of the pandemic”, laments Martí Cusó, a member of the Neighborhood Association of the Gothic Quarter.
Born in the historic heart of Barcelona, this 32-year-old biology teacher has lived since he was a child in one of the most photographed districts of the city. There is no route that does not pass through these medieval alleys, which during the pandemic — with a 76.8% drop in visitors in 2020 — once again belonged only to their neighbors.
“Almost spontaneously, the people reappropriated the squares, the children played in the street again, we met again”, tells about those months in which many also suffered from the collapse of an activity that accounted for around 15% of the Gross Domestic Product (GDP) of the second Spanish city, with 1.6 million inhabitants.
“The pandemic had a very negative face, it showed that economic monoculture based on tourism generated a lot of precariousness“, Explain. “The majority of neighbors who worked in tourism were left without a job from one day to the next”, he stresses.
The health crisis hit Barcelona just when it had just scored a record of almost 12 million visitors staying in 2019, according to municipal data, a figure that could double if cruise passengers and tourists who slept outside the city or in apartments without a license are added. to house them.
A success for the sector that, however, continued to worry a population that, two years earlier, at the beginning of 2017, came to point out tourism as the main problem in the city in a municipal survey.
“We have to change the model to reconcile both worlds, it cannot be that we have the city of the tourist bubble and the city of the local population”, indicates Francis Munozdirector of the Urbanization Observatory of the Autonomous University of Barcelona.
With the popular Ramblas once again full of visitors strolling and drinking sangria at skyrocketing prices on its terraces, the left-wing City Council — which has already applied plans in the past to limit, among other things, tourist accommodation — agreed to study new measures.
“Tourism is a very important economic, social and cultural asset for Barcelona”, defends the Councilor for Tourism, Xavier Marcwhich also recognizes the “coexistence problems” that entails.
“What you have to do is optimize the benefits and control the losses. That is the debate in which all European cities are”, he adds.
To reduce the pressure, the council is considering measures such as restricting access to places with the most crowds or further limiting the circulation of tourist buses.
The residents reproach, however, that Barcelona has missed this unique opportunity to reformulate its proposal. “Two years have not been wasted. It is very difficult to solve tourism problems when there is no tourism”, defends Marc.
The midday sun falls hard on the imposing Cathedral. On one side of the esplanade, Eva Martí hurries her rest before resuming the visit with the group to which she shows the historic center before taking them back to the port, where her cruise awaits them.
A few months ago this 51-year-old guide was finally able to resume her work after a period “very hard” due to the abrupt cut by the pandemic.
A Barcelona native, she understands her neighbors’ concerns about the massive return of visitors, but she considers it essential to find formulas to maintain an activity that sustains many people.
“In these 13 years in which I have dedicated myself to this, it is becoming much more difficult to visit the city with tourists”, tells about the rules that prevent, for example, groups from stopping in some areas or exceeding 15 people. “We will have to find a balance”, he asks before resuming the march.
A few meters from there, on the other side of the Cathedral, Martí Cusó coincides. “We are not asking for zero tourism. There is going to be tourism, what it has to be is a diversified city, where tourism coexists with other types of economic activities”, sentence.