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From Berlin to Barcelona: Welcome Goodbye

04/03/2012 1 comment

Once again city authorities in Barcelona (and Catalunya) are vying with those of Madrid.  This time it’s for the option to become a “Eurovegas destination”.  The tabling of this project is perhaps irresistible given the very high levels of unemployment in Spain.  But EuroVegas will be no gift.  There will be economic costs as well as a range of social, cultural and environmental impacts (as well as opportunities).  And then there are the opportunity costs–the money invested and the people and places given over to development might be better “spent” on other livelihood-supporting activities…  perhaps?

The big question for me, however, is what would be the dimensions and characteristics of tourism to Barcelona given both the presence of Eurovegas and predicted future tourism volumes.

And, incidentally, on what grounds does Eurovegas form part of the city’s sustainable tourism strategy?

Would Eurovegas serve to decant tourism from parts of the city where authorities have recognised that large visitor volumes challenge the balance of local life?  Or would Eurovegas add to the intensity of tourism numbers, thereby reducing the diversity of place uses and degrading the intrinsic qualities of the city’s places?

With these questions in mind it is little wonder that the Welcome Goodbye project has caught my interest (video in German with subtitles in English).  This filming project plans to ask questions about the potential outcomes for plans to grow, grow and… grow tourism to Berlin.  I suggest it gives cause for reflection for the city and people of Barcelona, with or without Eurovegas.

ROBIN BARDEN

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Just how enamoured with tourism are the Barcelonins?

Survey results released at the end of this summer prompted the headline in the Catalan edition of El Periódico “nine out of ten Barcelonins “applaud” [approve of] tourism”.

Well, 9 out of 10 of those who commented this story online responded “falsa” (false), “mentida” (lies) or “a quien demonios le han hecho esta encuesta?” (who the hell did they do this survey with?). Read beyond the headline, however, and the reasons for the 87.5% positive response become a bit clearer.

Tourism is probably the only major industry sector in Barcelona to have continued growing regardless of recent and ongoing economic crises: June through August saw tourist arrivals up 5.1% on the same period the previous year; tourism represents 15% of the city’s GDP; and visitors are purported to leave an average of €2 million a day in a multitude of cash tills in the city.

Such figures are also widely reported in the city’s press, so it’s to no surprise that city residents respond favourably when asked questions like “Does tourism create wealth?” and “Is tourism beneficial?”.

These questions do not, however, provide a complete or accurate picture of how locals feel about tourism. Above all, different locals feel differently about tourism–sometimes very differently–and this often depends on the extent to which they either benefit from tourism, or have to tolerate its less-appealing repercussions as part of daily life.

A more incisive reaction to the news story, therefore, involved questioning whether the survey had involved anyone living in the area around Las Ramblas. To those unfamiliar with the city, this is where Barcelona provides all sorts of enjoyment for tourists as well as residents from other parts of the city, ranging from taking in some extraordinary built heritage, to having fun in bars and clubs. Places here are special for myriad reasons–symbolic, nostalgic, identity-defining, educational, multicultural,…–again, depending on individual and group perspectives.

Also key, however, is the residential use of the area immediately surrounding Las Ramblas. So while some long-established residents may have perceived some Olympian improvements in infrastructure, they have also borne the brunt of an incredible growth in tourism flows with its attendant effects and changes to their neighbourhood. Elsewhere amongst Barcelona citizens, this has resulted in a certain level of recrimination that this iconic area is now “owned” by tourism and is less charming, less characterful or “less Barcelona” as a result, hence the various campaigns in recent years to “reclaim La Rambla”.

Here are some of the insights I gained while talking to people in La Rambla area whilst conducting interviews and a questionnaire survey as part of my Masters project in October-November 2010. Of the resident group surveyed:

  • 70% disagreed or strongly disagreed to the notion that “tourism generally seems to be having a positive effect on life” in the area
  • 50% strongly agreed that “the large volumes of people visiting this area have a negative effect on [their] enjoyment of the area”
  • 45% disagreed or strongly disagreed that visitors “seem to treat the place with respect”.
  • while 30% of residents indicated affection for the area, over 30% of them chose of their own volition to describe it as noisy, crowded, stressful and alike.

These figures are intensified considerably when we focus on those residents who have been living in the area for several years or more, i.e. established residents.

Clearly, the statistics I have presented are less upbeat than those based on different questions and a city-wide sample. But they are equally pertinent, if not more so.

Yes, people across the city support tourism to Barcelona–such international interest in the city is still a source of pride for many Barcelonins. And yes, there is much acknowledgement that tourism has helped improve the city in many ways, and that it continues to pay many salaries. But these views mix with doubts and resentment and the real and visible remonstrations of Barcelona’s “tourismophobes”.

So I question the utility of such broad-based surveys, and ask, isn’t it better to reach an understanding of the attitudes of those Barcelonins who really play host, whether inadvertently or purposefully, to its tourism and visitor industry? After all, don’t the city’s planners and policy-makers, businesses and tourism strategies need real insight if sustainability objectives are really to be acheived?