Barcelona’s tourism: A threat to the city’s population, environment and culture

The urban regeneration programme that came with the 1992 Olympic Games transformed Barcelona from a tired industrial port city to a cosmopolitan tourist destination, offering culture, architecture and beaches. Since 1990, tourism numbers in the city have increased from 2 million to over 30 million in 2017, making it the fourth most-visited European city. Some of the tourist appeal is inherent, given the city’s location, climate, food and relaxed atmosphere, but other aspects have been engineered by local government and the tourism board, constantly trying to attract more tourists despite the city’s increasing lack of capacity. The city’s success as a cultural tourist destination is becoming paradoxical; with it now so overrun with tourists it is at risk of losing the character that made it so popular in the first place.  

Several factors have contributed to the incredible increase in tourism that has occurred in Barcelona since the 1990s. Following the 2008 crisis, the city government promoted Barcelona to international markets as a holiday destination, encouraging the influx of tourists as an economic-survival strategy for the city. More recently, external forces such as the growth of Airbnb and the rise in budget air lines and cheap travel have also contributed to Barcelona’s tourism boom.  

In barrios worst affected by tourism, increasing rent prices, the conversion of long-term rental properties to Airbnbs, and the constant disruption brought by masses of tourists has led to locals fleeing: between 2006 and 2013, 12.3% of the local population left the Ciutat Vella. The Raval district has also been particularly affected by the rise in Airbnb properties. A historically poor and densely populated area; known by the end of the 20th century for its drugs, crime and prostitution. In the 1990s, city policy revived the Raval district, transforming it into a cultural zone with museums and academic institutions and attracted new residents and visitors. However, this regeneration rapidly gentrified the neighbourhood, leading to an increase in tourists and rental properties, and increasing the cost of living. Rental property in the Raval district has become one of the most expensive per square meter, despite average incomes in the area being below the city average.  

Tourism protests in Barcelona, August 2017. Source: Independent

Barcelona’s Gothic Quarter has the highest concentration of Airbnb rentals in the city, with one tourist apartment for every 9.2 homes, and has lost 18% of local residents in recent years due to the influx of tourists and increased rents. The increase in tourist numbers has also shaped the amenities in the city, with daily commerce substituted for shops and services aimed at tourists, that are generally inaccessible or useless for locals. This homogenisation of areas of the city to tourist ghettos threatens the guiding principles of the Cerda’s plan for the city: diversity and social cohesion. It has also resulted in both peaceful and violent protests from Barcelona locals, trying to regain their city from being entirely overrun by tourists.  

As well as impacting the residential structures of the city, Barcelona’s tourism has direct impacts on the city’s natural environment. As discussed in a previous post, Barcelona suffers from problems of air pollution. In 2019, Barcelona was found to be one of the most polluted ports in Europe. The tourism industry is responsible for much of this pollution, emitting the highest amounts of sulphur dioxide and carcinogenic nitrogen oxide from cruise ships visiting the port; with cruise ships in 2017 emitting nearly five times as much sulphur dioxide as the city’s cars. Although Barcelona’s ports contribute significantly to the city’s tourist numbers and emissions, 82% of tourists arrive in Barcelona by plane, with air travel responsible for 75% of carbon emission in the tourism sector.  

Barcelona’s tourism has also led to the commodification of city’s natural areas. The city’s famous Park Güell has stopped being used as a traditional park and is almost entirely used as a tourist destination. In 2013, more than 9 million people visited the park, only 2.4% of which were Barcelona citizens. In October 2013, to try and manage the overcrowding of the park and attempt to return it to the locals, the city introduced an entry fee only for tourist and limited the number of visitors to 800 per hour. Whilst from a classical liberal position these measures were an attempt to preserve the history of the site, the privatisation and regulation of the park was met with criticism along the lines of Lefebvre’s right to the city with the ‘Right to Gaudi’ – arguing against urban strategies confining and privatising public realm due to excessive tourist numbers.  

Overcrowding at Park Güell, August 2013. Source: Khare

Over the past thirty years Barcelona has branded itself as a tourist destination, offering sun, sea and culture. However, it is unsurprising that the city and its residents are reaching their tourism limits due to the phenomenal speed at which Barcelona’s tourism sector has grown. It will be interesting to see whether the public outcry for reduced numbers of visitors will materialise in a reduction in tourist numbers, or alternatively, how the city will cope if tourism numbers continue to rise at even a fraction of the rate they have done.  

3 thoughts on “Barcelona’s tourism: A threat to the city’s population, environment and culture

  1. Hi Alex, I really enjoyed reading this blog post, especially because I just remembered the time when I myself was in Park Güell. I think that you have shown the different sides that tourism brings to a city very well. On the one hand an economic source of income and on the other hand negative ecological and socio-political consequences.

    While reading this post, I was wondering whether the city of Barcelona is thinking about restricting Airbnb? I know that German cities tend to do so more and more. Or do you think Airbnb & Co are rather seen as a possibility for Barcelona to gentrify the city and to bring in new purchasing power?


  2. I’m fascinated by the way in which public spaces are changing as a result of tourism, as you have shown in this post. I think it’s a phenomenon that is visible in many cities, where open green spaces become part of a city’s marketing portfolio to international tourists. It’s upsetting to see that – perhaps well-meaning – attempts to increase visitor numbers may actually prevent residents from being able to easily access the open spaces in their own city. I think there are some really interesting parallels here with Hong Kong, where investment in public open spaces is often focused on commercial districts and tourist hotspots, rather than districts with dense residential populations, whose long-term well-being relies to an extent on access to public open spaces. It seems that a governmental focus on cities’ international image as a destination may counterintuitively detract from the standard of living of local people 😦


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