“Barcelona is for sale but not to the people who live here,” says Silvia Mateu, who has lived in the seafront neighbourhood of Barceloneta for 47 of her 61 years.
For two years Barcelona underwent a forced experiment caused by the Covid pandemic. Visitor numbers that hovered near 30 million suddenly dropped to zero.
For many citizens, the emptying out came as a blessed relief as they rediscovered parts of the city that had been rendered no-go areas by mass tourism.
But at the same time, dozens of bars, restaurants and shops went out of business, prompting an overdue debate on the need to diversify the economy.
The city has had some success in attracting startups, especially in technology industries, which deem the city on Spain’s Mediterranean coast as a cheaper and more attractive option than Paris or Berlin. However, since tourists returned in Easter talk of diversification has been drowned out by the sound of ringing tills.
The hospitality sector, which suffered more and longer than any other during the pandemic, is understandably delighted. Businesses that survived the lockdowns are plotting a path out of the debt they took on. But not everyone is happy.
“We don’t want life to be like it was in the pandemic but it also gave us a chance to see that there were other possibilities without massive tourism,” says Martí Cusó, who lives in the Gothic Quarter, the city’s busiest tourist area.
“My barrio is so saturated with tourists it’s impossible to meet someone in the street or for children to play or even to get a good night’s sleep,” he says. “These two years of the pandemic have been hard but it’s also a missed opportunity to rethink the city.”
Jordi Rabassa, the councillor for the Ciutat Vella district, which encompasses the Gothic Quarter, agrees.
“We haven’t done what was needed to bring about a profound and real change to the economic model,” he recently told the elDiario.es news site.
“I have been arguing for a more localised economy but I’ve been swimming against the tide. We have to work to ensure that the past two years haven’t just been a mirage.”
Fermín Villar is president of the Friends of La Rambla, a tree-lined, pedestrianised street synonymous with mass tourism.
“You can’t fix Barcelona without fixing La Rambla,” he says, pointing out that the majority of shops and bars simply do not cater to residents. “We can’t tell a bar how much to charge for a beer, but without the cooperation of the private sector there’s little we can do,” he says.
His comments cut to the heart of the problem: the many vested interests that depend and even thrive on mass tourism do not want anything to change, while those who do want change often lack the authority to affect decision-making.
For example, Ada Colau, the mayor, wants to restrict the number of cruise passengers who disembark on any given day. She claims that of the 3.1 million who arrived in 2019, 40% spent less than than four hours in the city.
Cruise tourists, she says, visit the same sites every time and tend not to put much money into the local economy. The port of Barcelona, however, is outside of her jurisdiction.
The other category of tourist that riles residents is young people who flock to the city for its warm weather, beaches, nightlife and festival scene.
Colau is targeting them with an attempt to clamp down on an estimated 6,000 unlicensed tourist apartments but is hampered by a supreme court ruling that allows websites to advertise illegal apartments.
Xavier Marcé, the city councillor responsible for tourism, wants hotels to charge more to attract wealthier clientele, but it is not in his gift to set pricing levels.
Mateu scoffs at the authorities’ repeated claims that they want to attract “quality” tourism.
“What we have in Barceloneta is booze tourism,” she says. “They don’t go to museums, they are not here to learn about our culture.
“Last summer, it was hell. Everything was shut but people still came for the weekend and they had botellones [outdoor drinking parties] on the beach and in the street.”
Some of those partying were locals but the majority were tourists, many escaping tighter Covid restrictions in other countries. “Now everything’s open and it’s worse – the weekend begins on Wednesday.”
A recurring complaint is that most tourists visit the same small areas, which is why Marcé wants to see visitors more widely dispersed.
But Cusó says this is a distraction. “This is just a way of avoiding the topic,” he argues. “Even if tourists do visit other areas, they’ll still come to the Gothic Quarter and Park Güell. It’s not about where people go or whether they are rich or poor, it’s about having a city that is less dependent on tourism in the first place.”
Mateu insists she is not anti-tourist, per se. Rather she wants a tourism model that prioritises civility, and puts a stop to visitors keeping local people awake all night and urinating on their doorstops.
Already there have been flashpoints and conflict in Barceloneta and elsewhere this year. With accommodation booked out for July and August, she sees a difficult summer ahead.
“It’s worse than ever and it’s only June; this summer is going to be monstrous,” she says.