Row erupts in San Sebastián after restaurants caught charging tourists more than locals

Marti Buckley
In the experiment, the “tourists” were charged €47.80 in total, while the two locals, who ordered in the local Basque language, paid €39.70 - © Santiago Urquijo

The pintxo bars in the Old Town of San Sebastián have been caught overcharging foreigners in an undercover exposé by a local newspaper.

In an article published on October 21 in El Diario Vasco, reporter Estrella Vallejo outlines an undercover operation in which she compares the cost of a night of pintxos (Basque tapas) for two locals and two foreigners.

In the experiment, conducted twice in one month at seven of the Old Town’s more than 200 establishments, the “tourists” were charged €47.80 in total, while the two locals, who ordered in the local Basque language, paid €39.70 – for the exact same dishes and drinks.

“The methods used vary from bar to bar,” the article explained. “Some of the practices are charging the same order at a more expensive price, or to serve a larger beer to someone who ordered a zurito, a small beer.” The constant? Looking like a tourist or not speaking fluent Spanish or Basque resulted in some type of price discrimination.

This is bad news for a city whose plan for tourism depends heavily on the popularity of the pintxo.

Tourism to San Sebastián has grown exponentially over the last few years Credit: samael334

“One thing is the debate on whether the prices are too high, and another thing is this,” said Denis Itxaso, Deputy of Culture, Cooperation, Youth and Sports on the Provincial Council of Gipuzkoa, via Twitter. “If I go on holiday and find out they are charging me more than the locals, even if they do so with a smile or serve really great food, I’m not going back.”

“The reaction in general has been positive and along the lines of what we wanted to achieve with the piece,” said Vallejo. “In a city where the culinary culture is so important, there should be a coherence between both the culinary values and the cultural and social values that are transmitted.”

And indeed, the reaction of the donostiarras, as residents of San Sebastián are known, has been a quiet uproar among both those in the industry and the patrons of the town’s bars.

Are restaurants and bars justified in charging tourists more than locals? Credit: GETTY

Josema Azpeitia, editor of the popular culinary medium Ondojan.com, sees a larger problem underlying these small price adjustments. “I think it’s really bad, and that the Town Hall should impose strict fines. There are bars that have always done this. The problem now with the growth of restaurant investment groups, charging more to certain people is not done spontaneously – they have institutionalized the practice in their very cash registers.”

“The sum of this ‘extra’ change can grow to an important amount, especially since 80% of the clients in these establishments in high season are tourists and visitors,” read Monday’s article.

“The one sure thing is that this is not standard in all bars,” Azpeitia adds. “The bars called out in the article, and where I have seen this happen, are not bars that I frequent, to be honest.”

Tourism to San Sebastián has grown exponentially over the last few years, creating its own cocktail of issues similar to those brewing in the rest of Spain. The Basque Institute of Statistics cited a 9.3% increase from 2017 to 2018 alone, much higher than the typical 2-3% increase of previous years. In 2018, Brits made up 10.5% of the international traffic to San Sebastián.

This increase translates to an average of 330 more people per day in the capital of Gipuzkoa, and the majority of these visitors are concentrated in the popular Parte Vieja.

What do you think? Should bars and restaurants be allowed to charge locals less than tourists? Or would this put you off visiting a destination?