It is almost impossible to take a picture of the Sagrada Familia without anyone getting in the picture, it is usually so crowded there. Not so much on this autumn day. Only a few tourists age their necks to see the details of the facade designed by Anthony Gaud.. There are even tickets for the same day. “This can never be done otherwise,” says the man at the box office, who is clearly bored.
14 million vacationers came in the record year in 2019
With almost five million visitors a year, before the Corona pandemic, the Sagrada Familia was the most sought-after attraction in Barcelona – and at the same time the symbol of the city’s mass tourism. 14 million vacationers came in 2019 – more than ever. Between 2010 and 2019, the number of passengers handled at the airport almost doubled from almost 30 to 53 million. And with the rapid increase, dissatisfaction in parts of the population also increased. Again and again there are protests about the excesses of mass tourism.
It is unusually quiet on the Ramblas these days
But now everything is different. The gift shop opposite the basilica is for sale. “All for five euros,” says a sign on the door. A corner further, José Lorenzo has been running a small restaurant for 20 years. Although it is lunch and the tables should all be busy, only one man drinks beer at the bar. The more tourism, the better for the economy, Lorenzo believes. “It’s positive when people come: it means they like it here.”
Unusual tranquility in the Gothic Quarter
A few kilometers further in the old town there is an unusual calm. Before the pandemic, crowds of vacationers flocked to the Gothic Quarter every day. Now it even happens that you walk in one of the narrow streets alone and hear your own footsteps resound. A number of shops have gone bankrupt on one of the city’s main tourist streets. The consequences of many months of stagnation are clearly visible in Barcelona.
Manel Casals does not believe in reducing bed capacity
“The situation is critical after so many months without any real activity,” said Manel Casals, general manager of the Barcelona Hoteliers Association. 40 percent of hotels are still closed. Normally, an average of 60,000 people spend the night in city hotels in the summer, this year it was only 13,000. The industry has lost 2.7 billion euros since the pandemic began. “We need to get back to the tourist numbers before the pandemic as soon as possible,” says Casals.
Many attractions in a small area
You can also see it in the city. “The talk of massification in Barcelona is too much,” says Tourism Director Xavier Marcé. “We do not have a problem with the number of holidaymakers, but with their distribution in the city.” In Barcelona, the sights are crowded in a very narrow area. This leads to conflicts with the locals and to undesirable developments, such as the disappearance of the traditional retail trade. In the historic center there are entire neighborhoods where you will find only souvenir shops, restaurants and hotels. “What we need is decentralization of tourism,” says Marcé.
Tourism chief Xavier Marcé wants to distribute tourism more evenly across the city
The tourism department has started several projects for this purpose. With the help of the Check Barcelona app, holidaymakers can now see how rushed the most important attractions are – and if the queues in front of the Sagrada Familia are too long, they can just go somewhere else. The sightseeing bus, on the other hand, which until now controlled only the usual attractions, now travels through areas that are almost completely inadequate for tourism. Like the former Poblenou industrial district, which in recent years has developed into a hip artists’ area.
Activists are losing support
Pere Mariné, one of the harshest critics of mass tourism, has lived there for many years. Mariné is a member of the strong city association and has organized many protest campaigns. However, the pandemic has taken the air out of the sails of activists. Many suddenly realized how painfully they depended on the holiday business, which accounts for about 13 percent of the city’s gross national product. “Everyone knows at least someone who works in tourism and is having a hard time now,” says Marin. Activists had to cancel a planned protest at Parc Güell due to a lack of participants.
For Mariné it is clear that the limit was exceeded at the latest in the record year 2019. He does not believe that the problem will be solved if the tourist flow is diverted. “Why do tourists come? They want to see Camp Nou, Parc Güell, the Sagrada Familia.” There is no way to reduce bed capacity in hotels and other accommodation. “We want hotels to be turned into social housing.” In this way, not only do you close the tourist offer, but you also fight the lack of affordable apartments in Barcelona.
Many businessmen were forced to close their shops, especially in the old town
There are no plans to reduce the number of beds
But nothing will come of it. Although the city has strictly regulated the approval of new tourist accommodation, no reduction in bed capacity is foreseen. On the contrary: development is possible in the suburbs outside the city center. “It is not our goal to reduce the number of tourists,” said Marcé, the head of tourism. This is only indirectly aimed at promoting hotel upgrades – which leads to higher prices. “Then the number of tourists will automatically decrease.”
Pere Mariné is not against tourism itself, but he is against massification
Manel Casals from the hotel association does not want to hear anything about reducing the number of visitors. Instead, divert your thinking to good things in life, such as travel to Congress and business. They spend more money and do not block the streets of the old city. But the potential for influence is limited, so it has no illusions. “There is only one Sagrada Familia in the world,” he says. “Everyone who comes to Barcelona wants to see it.” And this has at least one good thing: After all, the construction of the basilica is mainly financed by ticket sales.
The absence of tourists now means that the completion planned for 2026 had to be postponed. In the 100 years since the death of Anthony Gaud., The project had to be completed. After 144 years of construction.