Barcelona battles too many tourists

Tourists in front of Sagrada Familia
Tourists outside Sagrada Familia
Tourists outside Sagrada Familia

Barcelona, I love you. You’re traditional yet so stylish, inspiring and delicious. Oh, the shopping! Oh, Gaudi’s architecture! Oh, the street life!  And therein lies the problem. It has become a victim of its own success. Quality of life is so diminished, residents are fed up and something must be done.

Tourists in front of Sagrada Familia
Off-peak queues for Sagrada Familia

“The way of life for all Barcelonans is seriously under threat,” aspiring mayoral candidate Ada Colau Ballano said last year. She won the municipal election in June, becoming the city’s first woman mayor. The left winger is now expected to address the ugly side of tourism in the third most visited city in Europe.

Barcelona has 1.6 million residents, yet now draws nearly 8 million visitors annually. Half a dozen cruise ships a day disgorge thousands of visitors all at once. No wonder Barcelonans feel overrun, as if they’re living in a theme park. Tourists behaving badly – noisy drunkenness, relentless crowds, illegal tourists apartments and the proliferation of hotels diminishing traditional urban communities are just some of the problems.

Parc Guell 26
Parc Guell is always busy

Waiting hours in line to see Antoni Gaudi’s Parc Güell or Casa Mila or the spectacular church Sagrada Familia isn’t fun for visitors either, as I recently discovered. I kept wondering if there was a slightly less busy day, and realised there wasn’t.

But visitors also bring in €12bn a year and support an estimated 100,000 jobs.

Mayor Ballano rose to prominence after helping to organize the Platform for People Affected by Mortgages (PAH) movement in Barcelona in 2009, to defend citizens against evictions caused by the collapse of the Spanish property market. Now, preserving the integrity of Barcelona’s urban communities is a key issue for her.

Price of tourism
is too high

Catalan Patricia Cuni is a blogger at MadAboutTravel who also works for international travel company SkyScanner in Edinburgh, Scotland. She took me for a stroll down Las Ramblas and showed me some of the city’s most beautiful architecture apart from the obvious sights. Her views (in a fabulous Spanish-Scottish accent) echo those of disgruntled residents.

“As someone that has lived all her life in Barcelona and seen the city blossom and grow in popularity as a tourist destination, I can tell that the amount of visitors that the city has during high season (from April to end of September) is a bit too much for such a tiny place. I understand perfectly all the good things that tourism brings to the Spanish/Catalan economy. I reckon that most tourists come to my city in search of wonderful architecture, amazing food and a unique lifestyle but that has a price (a bit too high) for residents.”
And there’s another problem, Patricia says.

A city that barely has more than 1 million inhabitants and that is enclosed by mountains and the sea, can feel a bit claustrophobic when most of its main areas are taken by huge groups of holidaymakers. Or by very loud groups of tourists that just come here for the cheap alcohol and to parade semi-naked on the street, to then continue behaving in an anti-social manner that would not be well regarded in their homelands.”

She doesn’t want to see residents driven out, the way Venetians have been in Italy. Small businesses are at the heart of traditional neighbourhoods, and any denigration has an impact. The Global Financial Crisis hit small businesses hard from 2008 and some have never recovered. Badly-behaved tourists don’t help. The Devour Barcelona foodie tour is socially aware and takes customers to traditional Gràcia patisseries (like this one pictured below), tapas bars, product markets and stores. No gaudy, trashy stuff here. The tour company is mindful of the integrity of Barcelona urban communities and obviously as keen to respect and preserve traditions as locals are. The tour was a revelation  – no better method to taste local life up close and personal.

Making coffee in Pastisseria Ideal
Patisseria Ideal at Carrer de Santa Agata 18-20

Pastries and desserts at Pastissiera Ideal

We are not

At the other end of the scale, Patricia feels Catalan tourism is destroying social life on a most basic level.
Locals avoid some of the most beautiful parts of town because they feel like a theme park, a little bit like a historical Eurodisney. The years of strolling down Las Ramblas are gone since now they have been taken over by cheap and bad restaurant terraces with overpriced dishes. The times of going for a walk in Park Güell are also gone, as now you have to pay a fee to enter (yes, neighbours of the area still get free entrance and locals can register in the city council to gain free access on a certain date, but it’s not the same) because tourists were damaging the property and it was too costly for the town hall to mantain. Neighbours in Barceloneta, Barri Gotic and Gracia are sick of party-goers that use Barcelona as their weekend 48-hour party city. I guess the trick would be to find a good balance between a livable city and a touristy one.”
The answer is not to attack tourism, Ballano said recently in The Guardian.
 Everyone is a tourist at some point in their life. Rather, we have to regulate the sector, return to the traditions of local urban planning, and put the rights of residents before those of big business.”
Colau wants to put a moratorium on new licences for tourist apartments and hotels, to figure out how many there are and how many each neighbourhood can realistically support.
Neighbours gather, Gracia, Barcelona,
Catalan neighbours gather to chat
Gracia, Barcelona
No tourists! Where the locals meet

I stayed in Gràcia, where architecture and communal meeting places are little changed over several centuries. What I love about Greece I also love about Spain – traditional and social lives are as visible as hearts worn upon sleeves. Vibrant Verdi Street was a joy to visit with my Airbnb host Ana who introduced me to her enterprising friends. I explored there every day and always found something new to surprise me. There was no greater joy than eating pastries and drinking chocolate and coffee in one of the squares, where locals hang out and neighbours gather to chat. Maybe I was fortunate, but I didn’t encounter plagues of tourists.

Hot chocolate in Barcelona

Barcelona got under my skin. It made me think more about being a good traveller and an ethical visitor. I would leap at the opportunity to spend longer there. But does Barcelona need me to do that? Despite my well-meaning adoration, it needs fewer visitors even if we do love it to bits.

4 thoughts on “Barcelona battles too many tourists

  1. Hi Heather,

    Thank you so much for this timely and informative article. You know I am in love with Barcelona also, and have heard of the current mayor’s opinions and actions against over-touristing. What a problem to have! To have such a fabulous city that everyone in the world wants to go there, and when the subject is brought up about visiting Barcelona, everyone says, “Oh! I love that city!”
    But then there are always the few that can ruin it for everyone else. Drunken hoards causing public disturbances or destruction give a bad name to all tourists. It will be interesting to see if the mayor’s actions make a difference.
    I love that you have tempered the information with your own experience in sweet Gracia, with friendly and quiet locals.
    And by the way, Conrad and I will be there for the last half of October. Any chance you will be in the area? Would love to share one of those chocolate and churros, and an afternoon of getting to know each other!


    1. Josie – I wish with all my heart to be in Gracia again at the same time as you will be! Instead I will be ploughing my way through exams thinking of nothing else (possibly).

      Drunken tourist hoards also downgraded the beautiful Greek island of Corfu right from the early 1980s, but the Greek government’s building regulations (or lack thereof) were partly to blame. Allowing the rise of ugly, mediocre hotels was a shortsighted strategy. Sure, it provided jobs for locals and so on, but the downsides were glaring. I agree with the mayor of Barcelona and I wish her lots of success!


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