Barcelona takes steps to curb tourist surge

Tuesday, 31 January 2017 00:00 -     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}



Barcelona is outlawing new city centre hotels and tourist apartments to try to control hordes of visitors that authorities say threaten to suffocate one of Europe’s most popular travel destinations.

Renowned for its exuberant architecture and Mediterranean flair, the Catalan capital receives more than 17 million overnight visitors a year. But local complaints about the downsides of the tourism boom — from the louche behaviour of younger travellers to the lack of affordable housing — have risen sharply.

The city council approved a law on Friday that bans new hotels or visitor apartments anywhere in the city centre. If any hotel or apartment closes, its capacity cannot be replaced.

“We are delighted that so many people want to visit us but what is at stake now is the very city that we all admire. We need regulation and we need a better equilibrium,” said Janet Sanz, a senior member of the Barcelona local government in charge of urban development.

Barcelona ranks fifth in Europe for overnight visitors behind London, Paris, Berlin and Rome. Many of its most famous sites are clustered in the relatively small city centre in and around the Barrio Gótico, leaving the city with the sort of overcrowding challenge faced by tourist hotspots such as Venice.

Ada Colau, the city’s leftwing mayor, had already imposed a moratorium on granting new hotel licences shortly after taking office in 2015 but the new law steps up her fight with the local tourism industry.

Manel Casals, the secretary-general of the Barcelona association of hoteliers, accused the local Government of “demonising” the tourism industry. “This will not solve any of the problem they are trying to solve. It will just hurt economic growth and damage the whole city,” he said.

The main source of disturbance, Casals added, were day-trippers and holiday flats rented out via platforms such as Airbnb. Cracking down on hotels, in contrast, made little sense, he argued.

Already new hotels and holiday apartments can only be opened in Barcelona’s outer ring, in a deliberate effort to spread visitors more equally around the city. At the moment, half of tourist accommodation is concentrated in just 17% of the city area.

Sanz warned that some of Barcelona’s most idiosyncratic neighbourhoods, such as the former fishermen’s district of Barceloneta, were losing their “essence” as a result of tourism. “There are some neighbourhoods that are emptying because people can no longer afford to live there. Normal flats are being replaced by tourist apartments,” Sanz added.

The city government is also stepping up the fight against unlicensed holiday apartments, planning to increase the number of inspectors from 12 when the new city government took office to 110 in 2018.

On Colau’s watch, Barcelona has already closed more than 1,000 unlicensed tourist flats. (Financial Times)