The Battle of Barcelona: Pissed Off Residents Vs Drunk, Naked Tourists
Locals feel the recent influx of tourists is starting to change the city, from shops catering to visitors rather than residents, to naked Italians and drunk men dressed as bananas passed out in the streets.
In the current Spanish economy, you'd have thought the revenue generated by tourism might be welcomed. However, national financial growth starts to mean a little less when all the residential buildings around you are being turned into "youth hostels" for drunken holidaymakers intent on bringing "Magaluf-style" antics to your once-tranquil streets.
Thanks to the rise of Airbnb-style leasing, this is a gripe currently being protested vehemently by a number of Barcelona's residents. On any given day across the city, local communities are demonstrating, petitioning against new hotels or denouncing anti-social behaviour as part of a growing movement to curb the effects of the city's exponential tourism boom.
At the centre of this burgeoning conflict is the traditional fisherman's quarter, Barceloneta, a tight grid of narrow streets hailed by those who live there as a "village within a city", and arguably the neighbourhood most affected by Barcelona's 20-plus years of sustained growth as a tourism destination. Proximity to the beach, a rich maritime cultural history and seafood restaurants cooking up the catch of the day have all helped lure millions of tourists – and their prized disposable income – to the working-class neighbourhood each year. But with this success has come unprecedented conflict between locals and tourists, as an increasing numbers of Barcelonans are rejecting a model of tourism they say threatens the entire city.
In Barceloneta, tensions have been high since last August, when local frustration with tourists boiled over into a series of impassioned street protests against anti-social behaviour. In the midst of the peak holiday season, neighbours of all ages demanded an end to the "drunken tourism" they said was making life unbearable in the neighbourhood. "Many people have moved out of the area," says Sergio Arnás, spokesman for the La Barceloneta Diu Prou (Barceloneta Says Enough!) group and one of the organisers of last year's protests. "They saw the problems we've been experiencing for years as unsolvable."
As the protests continued and spread to other neighbourhoods, the mayor's office rushed to introduce community police patrols, and tensions dropped as the mercury fell and the peak season drew to a close. But half a year later, as the city gears up for the summer rush once more, frustration is growing and more protests are imminent, say residents.
Arnás – and the half dozen other fellow campaigners who accompany him to our interview in a busy Barceloneta café – point to a laundry list of problems with the city's tourism model. Chief among them, though, are the private short-term rental properties available to rent online through intermediary websites such as Airbnb. But while visitors to the city value the savings and freedom of rental flats, local residents say the boom in the sector has brought with it intolerable disturbances as an increasing number of properties are being rented out in their entirety, without a host, to rowdy young tourists.
"The fundamental problem is that you have people who are on holiday and on that timetable sharing a building with people who have to get up and work each morning," says Nando Prieto, a campaigner who explains he was motivated to take action after several flats in his building began to be rented out to groups of holidaymakers. "It's like living in a youth hostel."
Prieto says that noise and the sense of insecurity brought by living next door to a constant, changing stream of visitors who stay for a few days at a time are the most common complaints among residents. But reports of more serious disturbances are also common. Outrage at three Italian tourists who ran naked through the neighbourhood and attempted to enter a supermarket sparked the protests last year.
"[Tourists] have urinated onto my balcony, they have set fire to laundry, someone defecated in the building's hallway," Prieto says.
For Arnás, the problem lies with the type of tourism. Barcelona, in its rush to draw ever more tourists, has opened the doors to drunken, budget tourism, which brings little economic benefit but great social harm, he says.
As we talk, a middle-aged local man comes over to show us a photo he has just taken of a tourist dressed as a banana, passed out drunk on the floor outside a nearby cafe. It's 7:30PM. Arnás is not surprised. He says it's representative of the "low cost" tourism of Salou or Magaluf that is increasingly coming to Barcelona. "It is not a question of the class of tourists," he says. "It's a question of respect."
Residents are exhausted, they tell me. "Last year, things blew up and it would have got really out of hand if we hadn't put the brakes on the protest," says Prieto. "It would have ended with a tourist being thrown off a balcony. This year, I don't think we will be able to stop it if nothing changes."
The debate surrounding tourist flats is not just causing tension between tourists and locals, though; many Barcelona residents see the Airbnb-led model of leasing as a much-needed economic boon for Spain's economy, which is recovering, but could still benefit from all the added revenue this type of tourism brings in.
The Association of Barcelona Hosts (AMFBCN) represents residents who lease their homes in part or whole (on a temporary basis) to tourists through sites such as Airbnb. AMFBCN President Joan Pere told me hosts have a personal stake in trying to prevent anti-social behaviour and that great care is taken in ensuring only "trustworthy" and "respectful" visitors are accepted. He said rental flats spread the benefits of tourism to less-visited neighbourhoods and provide an important means of income for hosts.
"We represent people for whom the income earned from leasing a room to tourists is indispensable to paying their bills, but that's not the only motivation," Pere says. "Property hosts are people who know the city well, and we enjoy sharing this experience."
A 2014 study published by Airbnb supports Pere's claims, reporting that more than half of the company's Barcelona hosts said leasing out a room helped them make ends meet. The same study said Airbnb activity contributed €430 million (£315 million) in the preceding year to the city's economy and created more than 4,000 jobs.
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However, Barceloneta Says Enough and other community groups across the city say that residents are being forced out by rising property prices as entrepreneurs move into the lucrative buy-to-let market. While attempts to clamp down on flat rentals have traditionally found strong support from the powerful hotel lobby, the distinction between the two markets is increasingly blurred as big business invests in private short-term properties.
Barcelona is alternately the third or fourth destination with the most Airbnb listings in Europe. According to the company, there are currently 15,000 listings available on the site. Asked about what can be done to tackle irresponsible hosts within that number, Andreu Castellano, communications director for Airbnb Spain, said the company informs all hosts of their obligations by law and encourages responsible behaviour. He said that more than 70 percent of users have only one listing, but that the company acts as a platform of exchange and does not regulate hosts.
Platform for Tourist Rentals (PPTV), an industry-funded campaign group that formed in the wake of last summer's protests, has published a series of videos refuting claims of a link between anti-social behaviour and tourist flats.
PPTV leader Elisabeth Casañas describes the attempts of neighbourhood associations such as Barcelona Says Enough to monitor tourist flats as "illegal", "abusive" and responsible for stigmatising foreign visitors. "They are provoking a social rupture among neighbours who have previously never had problems, but are now at odds with one another," she says.
In their efforts to control the proliferation of tourist properties, residents have taken it upon themselves to photograph tourists entering possible illegal rental flats, Casañas tells me. "They visit flats belonging to foreigners who have lived here for months or years, targeting anyone who looks like a guiri [foreigner] over a period of weeks to make sure they are living there long-term. I've personally been the object of photographs and hostile looks for walking down the street with a suitcase in my own city."
However, for Oriol Casabella, leader of the Barceloneta Neighbourhood Association, anti-social behaviour and abuses in the tourist flat market are just several symptoms of a much wider problem: the unsustainable number of tourists who visit the city each year.
"The balance between tourists and locals has gone out of the window," he said. "When the summer cruise ships arrive, upwards of 3,000 people disembark at once on [central promenade] Las Ramblas and head to [emblematic market] La Boqueria. The result is shops changing as they look to cater to tourists instead of locals."
Barcelona has a population of approximately 1.6 million. More than 7.6 million foreign tourists are expected to visit the city this year, a dramatic increase on the 1.7 million tourist visits recorded in 1990. In comparison, London – consistently among the world's most visited cities – will host more than twice the number of tourists, with 18.8 million holidaymakers expected in 2015. However, its population is approximately 8.6 million, more than five times that of Barcelona.
Jordi Clos, president of the city's hotel association, last year called for the city to go further still and aim to attract as many as 10 million tourists annually. However, residents across the city say local life is already at risk and that Barcelona is being converted into a "theme park" for tourists.
Eduardo Chibas is the director of Bye Bye Barcelona, a 2014 documentary charting the disillusionment of residents with the city's meteoric rise as a tourist destination. "I've lived in Barcelona for 12 years, and like any other resident I've seen the tremendous increase in tourism in the city," he told me. "I've seen zones that I like, such as Barceloneta, be turned slowly into tourist zones, becoming places where I no longer feel comfortable."
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The key battlegrounds between residents and the tourism industry include the emblematic architectural works of Antonio Gaudi. Residents close to the Sagrada Familia basilica (3.2 million visitors annually, the most-visited monument in the country) complain that tourists block pavements and impede traffic, while in 2013 authorities infuriated locals by effectively introducing an entrance fee to visit Park Güell in an attempt to limit visitors to the public park.
"The fundamental problem is there are simply too many tourists coming here, and it seems as if there is no attempt to stabilise or reduce their number," said Chibas. He says the city needs to heed the examples of other tourist destinations if it is to resist the spread of the "tourist monoculture" that dominates areas such as Las Ramblas.
"The obvious example is Venice. Residents have been leaving for years because life in the city is unbearable. Venice is no longer a city, it's a living museum," he says. "I think Barcelona still has time to avoid that fate."
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