Barcelona locals aggressively protest overtourism: What is it and is their aggression valid?

“Tourists go home” — this was the reigning sentiment in Barcelona over the weekend as thousands of locals thronged the streets of their vibrant city to make their displeasure known to the tourists passing through. Their problem? Too many tourists, as much inflation and too little space.

Barcelona rejects overtourism via planned protests(Freepik, X)

Right off the bat, overtourism is not a new concocted phenomenon from the land of the Spaniards. Barcelona may have made the global news owing to their recently assumed aggressive stance against tourists but they are not the first who are grappling with the impact of being an oft-visited tourist destination. What is this brimming fiasco then all about?

What is overtourism?

As per the World Travel and Tourism Council (WTTC), prior to COVID-19, tourism accounted for 10.4% of the global GDP. The figure has seen a slight decline since then, standing at 9.1% for last year. Speaking of Barcelona alone, the pre-COVID era saw the city reportedly clock in €12 billion from just tourism. What then, could possibly be the city’s problem with tourists arriving daily by the thousands, ready to spend their money and contribute to the economy?

Tourists throng the famous Trevi Fountain in Rome(Solimar International)
Tourists throng the famous Trevi Fountain in Rome(Solimar International)

As per a National Geographic report, overtourism is best understood as “the spiraling numbers of visitors taking a toll on cities, landmarks and landscapes”. While this may not sound like a ‘problem’ warranting an orchestrated harassment of tourists as took place in Barcelona over the weekend, the long-term impact of overtourism is significantly more serious than simply being bothered by you favourite nooks in the city looking too congested.

Why is Barcelona protesting overtourism?

The main bone of contention for Barcelona has been the inflated cost of living, courtesy of the steadily growing volume of tourists populating the city during peak travel season. How serious the situation is, is evident from the fact that the city has a dedicated Neighborhood Assembly for Tourism Degrowth. As nearly 3000 locals took to the streets with brightly-coloured water guns directed at tourists, a 13-point manifesto was presented demanding restrictions on tourist accommodations, fewer cruise terminals in the city’s port and an end to tourism advertisements using public money, as outlined by The Washington Post.

Crowds galore at Barcelona's La Rambla(Shutterstock)
Crowds galore at Barcelona’s La Rambla(Shutterstock)

The protests have not been in vain, with Barcelona Mayor Jaume Collboni pledging 10,000 residential units dedicated for tourists to local residents instead, in tow with a significant hike in tourist taxes on Saturday itself. This is also not the first step of appeasement taken by authorities to quell native frustrations. As per a Bloomberg report, the rather popular bus no. #116, taking tourists to Antoni Gaudí’s Park Güell, one of the most popular spots in the city, can now no longer be found on Google or Apple maps. This was orchestrated by the city council with the intention of reducing neighbourhood and bus crowding by making it more difficult for tourists to get to the said location, momentarily pacifying the locals.

Barcelona is not alone in its woes

Japan’s spirit of ‘omotenashi’ is strikingly similar to India’s ‘atithi devo bhava’, with both principles honouring the sentiment of caring for guests like one’s own. This spirit in Japan however, stands significantly compromised in the face of the Yen (Japan’s currency) weakening. While Japan has for long been a sought after tourist destination, it appears the scenic cities increasingly don’t appear to have the literal as well as emotional infrastructure to deal with unabashed crowding. Take the town of Fujikawaguchiko for instance which has blocked any chance of visitors managing a selfie with Mount Fuji in the backdrop, lest these antics stall traffic. Additionally, tourist charges for bullet trains have shot up by 70%, a rather aggressive surge.

Japan's Mount Fuji overcrowded by visitors(Yamanashi Prefectural Government)
Japan’s Mount Fuji overcrowded by visitors(Yamanashi Prefectural Government)

Venice too, is grappling with its own overtourism woes. Estimated to be hosting about 20 million tourists every year, as per a CNBC report, an ‘entry fee’ of €5 euros per person has been levied starting April 2024, which has met with a dismal response. Mayor Luigi Brugnaro clarified that the intention behind essentially locking Venice behind a paywall of sorts “is not to close the city, but not let it explode”.

Venice has also fallen prey to overtourism(Skift)
Venice has also fallen prey to overtourism(Skift)

Be it Greece imposing a ticketing system at the famed Acropolis to control crowds, New York levying restrictions on Airbnb to allow more space for its locals or Amsterdam consciously pulling back on the construction of new hotels, it appears tourists being welcomed with open arms is increasingly becoming a thing of the past.

Acropolis in Greece now has a ticketing system for tourists(AP)
Acropolis in Greece now has a ticketing system for tourists(AP)

Is there a solution?

George Mason University’s professor of Economics Tyler Cowen believes significantly hiking prices is a fair gamble taken by tourist hotspots to control crowds and simultaneously pacify locals whilst tending to the economic impact of overtourism. However, is it really ‘fair’ for the demographic of tourists for whom visiting these now-seemingly ‘contested’ locations is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity? This is of course, not to dismiss the concerns of locals who are expressing their objections to essentially losing their cities to foreigners.

Whose side are you on?

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