Story by Alex Newman
BARCELONA–It’s Friday, late afternoon, and Justin Dowell, Emily Biggins and Summer Bredin are strolling the famed Barceloneta seaport, reminiscing about their late night of karaoke, drinking and flirting in the popular La Rambla area.
The three friends, in shorts and tank tops and with various degrees of sunburn, are here to work for a local travel agency that focuses on drawing 20-somethings to the historic city with promises of partying, hooking up and all-night binges they’ll never remember. It’s the sort of debauchery that the locals have come to despise.
Biggins, a 25-year old petite brunette most recently from the New York and New Jersey areas, is a promoter for The Stoke Travel Company, which means she walks up and down the seaport all day, hawking booze cruises. She knows her territory – yet she was still surprised to see a flag that read Cap Pis Turistic – “No Tourist Apartment” – hanging on a nearby balcony. It was one of many in the area. “Oh, wow, I’ve never even noticed that,” she said, though she’s been walking past it for two weeks.
Like Biggins, many of the vacationers who flock to the beachside community are most likely unaware of the local resentment toward them. Once a quiet fishing village, where the streets are so narrow neighbors can hold conversations from their balconies, the seafront neighborhood of Barceloneta has become one of several popular destinations for the city’s millions of yearly travelers. What many consider an endless cycle of crowds, noise and unrelenting partying has taken its toll on the residents of this close-knit community – and they have decided to fight back.
The banners, their black lettering and plain white background in sharp contrast to the bright yellow and blue of the regional Barceloneta flag, are a warning to beachgoers venturing too far inland. As residents of Barceloneta have grown increasingly impatient with the number of young, drunk and loud foreigners inching into their community, so have the number of flags telling them to get out.
“I’ve come into the store at 5 in the morning and they’ll be out front, drunk and singing,” said Marta Civet, 37, manager of the Mon Pa bakery on Carrer de l’Almirall Churruca, one of the many quaint, cobblestoned, pedestrian-only alleys that tourists are drawn to. “Sometimes they just stay and sleep on the streets.”
But the flags are just one example of the malcontent toward the tourism industry in Barcelona. Last July the Catalan government levied a 30,000 euro, or $33,000 fine against Airbnb, a website that assists vacationers in finding inexpensive deals on rentals, for working with unlicensed apartment owners. By law, property owners have to register each unit they intend to rent to tourists. The following month, disgruntled residents protested after a group of Italian tourists ran nude through the streets of Barceloneta during the day. In the fall the Barcelona City Council initiated an inspection program to investigate apartments to determine if tourists are staying in them illegally. And most notably, a far-left political party, Barcelona en Comú, recently formed around principles aimed at controlling the explosion of tourism and redistributing its profits evenly among the communities.
Its candidate, Ada Colau, became mayor in late May, and the party now holds the city council majority.
Barcelona is currently the No. 1 tourist destination in Spain and the fourth most popular European city for international tourists. Yearly, about 8 million people visit the coastal Mediterranean city to take in everything from its architecture to its parks and art.
According to Oscar Casanovas Ibañez, professor of law and tourism politics at the University of Barcelona, locals’ frustration comes from the saturation of tourists who dwell in the same areas of the city.
“You have about 10, 12, 15 places in Barcelona where tourists visit,” Ibañez said. A few examples: La Rambla, the main promenade that ties the pulsing Plaça Catalunya to the seaport; Parc Güell, Antoni Gaudi’s famous public space overlooking the city; Camp Nou stadium, where the famed FC Barcelona play their home matches. “It’s a problem of concentration and it’s not an easy problem to solve.”
And then there’s the economic reality: Spain has been in an economic crisis since 2008. According to Ibañez, in trying economic times, tourism is a safe bet for any city. Even if other industries are failing, vacationers will still want to come.
“Black or white, happy or not happy, the Sagrada Familia is always there,” Ibañez said, referencing Gaudi’s unfinished magnificent, eight-spired basilica that looms over the the city and is set to be fully constructed with a total of 18 towers in another 11 years.
José Alvárez, a 17-year resident of the gentrified Raval district in Barcelona, has grown tired of the increasing number of tourists his neighborhood attracts. The one-time home of Enriqueta Martí, a serial killer from the late 1800s nicknamed “The Vampire of Barcelona,” it now lures vacationers to the MACBA, the city’s premiere modern art collection, and the trendy Barceló hotel.
Alvárez felt that speaking out against tourism was taboo until the protests last summer. “It’s a sacred thing. Tourism equals money,” the 48-year old said. “I thought I was alone feeling this way – this feeling that you are losing your city.” But it soon became clear that many others felt the same way.
Alvárez, who works as a comptroller for Barcelona’s city government, took part in the two days of protests last August and has since become more involved with the political party Barcelona en Comú. He said many feel they are being subjected to an influx of travelers without the profits going back into the infrastructure of the community. Barcelona en Comú aims to slow the growth of tourism and distribute the wealth more evenly among the neighborhoods. It has garnered much of its support from districts where residents feel exploited.
Marc Falco, 40, has a different take on the subject because he, like many, profits from Barcelona’s tourism boom. He serves as the technical director for Shik Barcelona, an apartment rental company that, partnered with another firm, rents 2,000 properties exclusively to students and tourists. He estimates that Shik Barcelona last year generated a profit of up to $500,000. While he understands the backlash against tourism and the support for Barcelona en Comú, he believes the party’s goal of slowing the growth of tourism is misguided.
“If Ada Colau wins, I will be homeless in the street,” Falco quipped prior to the election.
Falco said that he holds his renters to a strict standard, charging them a deposit that they do not get back if he receives complaints from neighbors or the police. He said the standard deposit fee is $300, but he has gone as high as $1,000 depending on how young the renters are. If it were up to him, he said, he would outlaw the renting of apartments to tourists 18 to 20 years old, but in order to stay competitive, he has to rent to a younger demographic. Raising the deposit is one way he tries to ensure they don’t cause problems.
The crowd Falco would rather avoid is exactly who Dowell, Biggins and Bredin – the promoters – are looking for on the boardwalk. On this day, they are handing out flyers for the Barefoot Party Boat, a booze cruise sponsored by their travel company that promises panoramic views of Barcelona, music upstairs and downstairs, ‘everlasting’ mugs of beer and good-looking young people. In addition, they hand out their business cards, complete with a discount code to soften the 40 euro, or $43, fee. Biggins’ is “Kittiesntitties” and Bredin’s is “Gore.”
On the bottom left of the card is the company’s slogan. It’s printed inside a pair of wide eyes held open with a fish hook. It reads “Barcelona: the city that never sleeps.”