Spain's mass tourism in candidates' crosshairs in election year
By Joan Faus
BARCELONA (Reuters) - Scrawled across Barcelona's opera house, along the city's renowned La Rambla boulevard, is expletive-laden graffiti urging tourists to "go home".
In another district, the messaging is more emphatic still: "Tourism kills neighbourhoods".
The signs, which appeared in recent days, underline how anti-tourism sentiment is bubbling up in the Spanish city most-visited by foreigners, as arrival numbers return to near pre-pandemic levels following the lull during lockdowns.
Mass tourism regulation has surfaced as a political hot-button topic across Spain ahead of local and regional elections on Sunday.
Several candidates, the most prominent being Barcelona's far-left mayor who is seeking a third term, have vowed to curtail tourism activity, by reducing cruise ship arrivals or reconverting hotels into social housing.
"We like tourism, to have visitors, but tourist overcrowding triggers problems of mobility, speculation and gentrification that put our local way of life at risk. Therefore, we have to regulate it," Barcelona Mayor Ada Colau told Reuters.
Spain was the world's second most-visited country in 2019, after France, according to data from the United Nations, with tourism accounting for 12% of the economy.
Barcelona, Spain's second-largest city of 1.6 million people, received around 30 million visitors, including day trippers, the same year.
When the pandemic hit, many residents breathed a sigh of relief at the suddenly empty streets and beaches.
Its authorities also took the opportunity to focus on higher value tourism, marketing the city as a high-end gastronomic destination for example.
This year, tourist numbers are within a whisker of pre-pandemic levels once more, with first-quarter international tourist arrivals to Spain up 41% from the same period of 2022.
Tourists arriving earlier to avoid increasingly sweltering summer temperatures due in part to climate change and water restrictions imposed amid an intense drought affecting Catalonia, could also be factors increasing frustration over mass tourism, said Gemma Canoves, geography professor at Barcelona's Autonomous University.
Colau believes residents want a different model now.
"We welcome tourism but we need to grow other strategic sectors," she said, arguing that restrictions imposed since taking office in 2015 have strengthened and diversified Barcelona's economy towards new sectors such as tech startups.
Seeking to protect rents and local identity, Barcelona was among the first cities in Europe to ban new hotels in the centre and restrict short-term room rentals. It also shut around 8,000 unlicensed tourist apartments.
In her re-election campaign, Colau proposes halving the numbers of passengers arriving at Barcelona's cruiseship port, and stripping licenses from tourist apartments and shops.
She also opposes expanding its airport, maintaining Barcelona cannot absorb 20 million more tourists.
Her rival Xavier Trias, from the separatist, business-friendly Junts party now tied with Colau and the Socialists in opinion polls, accuses her of scaring investors.
"Tourism is a competitive asset for a city," Trias, who was mayor before Colau, told Reuters, arguing her opposition to economic activity is ideological. "It makes no sense to be against tourism".
He wants to promote family and business-driven tourism, and to modify the cap on hotel openings to win back five-star projects that were cancelled, while conceding restrictions make sense in some areas.
QUALITY OVER QUANTITY
Tourism is a central electoral theme in the Balearic islands too, where a left-wing coalition government capped cruises and accommodation in recent years.
"Our priority is not quantity but quality. We propose zero growth in accommodation and holiday rental units," regional president and Socialist candidate Francina Armengol told Expansion newspaper this week.
She also proposes acquiring "obsolete" one and two-star hotels to shut or reconvert them into social housing.
While Barcelona's Colau envisions less cruise ships, Malaga in the southern region of Andalucia hit a record this month for arrivals by boat.
Malaga's conservative mayor is weighing a "solidarity" tax on tourist apartments, while the far-left candidate wants to tax cruise ship passengers.
"The problems we are seeing in Barcelona will appear in every Spanish province soon," warned Jorge Marichal, chairman of Spanish hotels business association CEHAT.
He referred to an unregulated proliferation of tourist apartments in the past decade, which he said has triggered a rise in housing costs and "loss of identity in city centres".
But even Barcelona's approach of diversifying tourism away from landmark areas can backfire.
This month, a park that had become a popular attraction for tourists in a less affluent neighbourhood was fenced off and closed at night following protests over overcrowding and rubbish.
"Neighbours feel the place has been stolen from them," said protester Fran Bernal. "Tourism does not bring wealth but a negative impact to the area ... It's a scourge".
(Reporting by Joan Faus, editing by Aislinn Laing and Alexandra Hudson)