Moral Compass | How to Travel in Barcelona When They (Really) Don’t Want You There
Liz Biscevic—Moral Compass
Three years ago, my friends and I traveled to Barcelona for a relaxing long weekend away from Madrid, where we were living at the time. We stayed at Christopher’s Inn—a hip hostel located about two minutes from a metro, five minutes from Plaza Cataluña, and two blocks in either direction from 11 similar accommodations. At the time of booking, we considered the close proximity to so many other hostels a testament to the district’s charm, but as we explored the neighborhood, it didn’t take long for us to reach a new conclusion: there were too many damn tourists, and locals did not approve.
Our trip occurred a few months before the famous incident that spurred hundreds of Barcelona locals to protest tourism in their city. The story goes that in the summer of 2014, a group of Italians went to Barcelona for a bachelor party and, after a night of drinking (and probably more), wandered into a grocery store completely naked, attracting the attention of elderly residents and families with children. That incident became a galvanizing symbol for locals fed up not only with visitors’ excessive partying, but other aspects of the dark side of tourism that threatened to ruin the charming Catalan city by the sea.
In 2014, there were over 7.5 million tourists who traveled to the 39-square-mile city, over four times the number of permanent residents. Tourism has been steadily growing since the Summer Olympics in 1992—the city is now the third most popular destination in Europe. The stampede of visitors has spiked the cost of living, pitted local businesses against tourist-favored chains, and generally made it harder for the city’s daily inhabitants to enjoy their hometown. At the end of 2013, the famous Park Güell started charging admission to some areas due to the sheer numbers of people visiting. Now, even permanent residents have to pay for entry to a park that had been free for over 87 years.
This past January thousands of Barcelona locals marched down the famous La Rambla with banners that read “Barcelona is not for sale,” and “We will not be driven out,” but that isn’t stopping the millions of vacationers from arriving.
So how do you in good conscience travel to a place where you’re not only unwanted, but contributing to a social and economic crisis? First, by eliminating the notion that your tourism dollars are helping locals. Sure, tourism is one of the driving forces of Barcelona’s economy, generating over 20 million euros per day and accounting for over 11 percent of the region’s GDP, but this is not without cost. According to Barcelona resident and travel writer Monica Nastase, Barcelonians are being pushed out of the city, their homes turned into hotels and souvenir shops. Likewise, mom-and-pop shops are struggling to compete with a crush of international chains.
Do your research before you pick a place to stay.
San Antoni, one of Barcelona’s most popular neighborhoods, is one of the most affected areas and the first to protest over-tourism. To illustrate the problem, local website Fem Sant Antoni created a “map of shame” that shows how tourism is suffocating the district. According to the site, there are 561 legal tourist apartments in the neighborhood, 22 real estate agencies, 12 entire apartment complexes dedicated to tourism, 12 hotels, 18 hostels, and seven buildings either for sale or in the process of being sold to an investment fund. That’s not taking into account the 904 Airbnb listings for the neighborhood, which may or may not be approved by the city.
For the budget traveler, Airbnb is a godsend, but Barcelonians tie it and other vacation rental platforms to a staggering increase in rents in the city (one report found rent rose 33 percent on average between 2013 and 2016) and overcrowding in what were once quiet, residential neighborhoods. For instance, three quarters of people residing in Barcelona’s Old Town make income below the national average, and many are being forced to move as landlords can make more money on nightly and weekly rentals.
The Spanish city isn’t alone in worrying that the “Airbnb effect” will ruin its culture; European destinations from Amsterdam to Berlin are also pondering how to curtail hosts that are using the platform to essentially run an unregulated hotel business without regard for the locale’s broader culture. At least the more limited supply of hotels and regulated tourist apartments in a small city like Barcelona could use market forces to help control tourism.
However, hotels are not blameless, especially when it comes to environmental concerns like energy use and waste. So, where are tourists supposed to stay in a city that’s being destroyed by tourism? “Trip Advisor Green Leaders evaluation provides a good system for guiding consumers to the greener options,” Rebecca Johnson, the sustainability manager for a travel and events company in Barcelona, suggested via email. “Travelife is another recommended tool.” Barcelona Sustainable Tourism, a branch of the Barcelona Tourist Board, also provides a list of sustainable hotels and businesses to support that will at least lessen your environmental impact during your stay.
If hotels aren’t an option, look for tourist apartments in locations outside of the more popular neighborhoods. Barcelona is one of the safest cities in the world, so finding a place to stay a few miles away from the city center won’t necessarily put you in any danger. You might even find a more genuine culture if you stay off the beaten path, and save a few dollars, too.
Don’t treat Barcelona like Las Vegas.
As in most metropolitan cities, you can’t drink in public in Barcelona. That means it’s illegal to wander around with beers in hand, bring sangria to the beach, and act like a sloppy mess while out sightseeing. Also, contrary to its beachy vibes, it’s also illegal to walk around the city in only a swimsuit—even for men.
If you’re staying in a tourist apartment, remember you’re likely a temporary neighbor to families with small children, senior citizens, and working folks who want to relax at home without disturbance. Throwing ragers on weeknights, bringing the party home late at night (or early in the morning), and blasting music during the day is disrespectful. The whole point of traveling is to get out of your comfort zone. If you’re set on drinking, at least get out of your room and visit one of Barcelona’s many late-night bars and discos.
Assimilate to the local culture.
The onslaught of tourists over the last few years hasn’t just affected the local economy: it’s changing the culture, too. Jan Fleischer, Time Out Barcelona English website editor, illustrated this for me with an anecdote. One evening, she and her friends attempted to get a drink after work, but were told they wouldn’t be seated unless they ordered dinner. “Traditionally in Barcelona, and all of Spain, dinnertime is around 9 or 10 p.m.,” far later than the hour Fleischer and her friends were there. “So for a place to turn away locals for a drink at [that] time is a clear bid to get in tourists whose dinnertime is much earlier,” said Fleischer.
In an interview with NPR, Martí Cusó, a member of one anti-tourism group in Barcelona’s Gothic quarter laments the loss of community as a result of over-tourism. "All the community that was living here has been broken—completely broken," Cusó told NPR.
Roci Gayo worked at La Boquería, a centuries-old market and popular tourist destination in the Ciutat Vella District. But as tourists increasingly filter through the tiny passageways in throngs, swarm vendors to snap photos of items they don’t intend to purchase, and overcrowd the already busy market, locals have sought other places to do their grocery shopping. And while tourists may stop to buy souvenirs, they rarely purchase fruits, vegetables, or other grocery items that the majority of market vendors have traditionally sold. “Out of 20 tourists, if I'm lucky, maybe one will buy one piece of fruit—but no more," Gayo told NPR.
While they may seem like small things, making an effort to follow local customs and spend tourist dollars on goods other than souvenirs can go a long way toward preserving a vacation spot’s traditions and enhancing your own travel experience.
Travel outside the city limits.
“Sustainability isn’t just about the environment,” said Johnson. “Respecting and promoting local Catalan culture is key to preserving a sustainable future for Barcelona's tourism industry.” To that end, she recommends supporting lesser known attractions like Casa de les Punxes, the Arc de Triomph, the Botanical Gardens, and Parc del Laberinto. She also advises getting out of Barcelona altogether, at least for a little while. “Public transport is very good in Spain and I would also encourage any visitor to combine at least part of their stay with a stay out of the city and into Catalunya, [which] offers its own unique culture in cuisine, markets, festivals, art, architecture, history and literature,” said Johnson.
If we’re being realistic, it’s highly unlikely that tourists will ever abandon this coastal city, known for its sunny weather, Gothic architecture, old-world charm, and vibrant night life. But like so many other cultural hot spots, Barcelona is now in a desperate battle to preserve the very things that make it so attractive. No matter where we choose to travel, prioritizing the needs and customs of locals over our desire for cheap, wild, and homogenous vacations can help ensure there aren’t literal protests on the streets when we arrive.
Photography by Cristianna Saldanha