Barcelona welcomed nearly 30 million visitors last year. Is it all too much? // Photo via Flickr/Jorge Franganillo.
Barcelona welcomed nearly 30 million visitors last year. Is it all too much? // Photo via Flickr/Jorge Franganillo.

More than 30 million people visited Barcelona last year. This is a number most tourism boards would kill for, but for Barcelona, it’s a big problem.

The city, which welcomes nearly as many visitors each month as it has residents, is facing a variety of challenges many of which are directly affected by unrestricted tourism. Among them are rising property values and a stretched-to-the-max city infrastructure that is funded by locals but used to support tourists.

The rising property values says Barcelona’s mayor Ada Colau—the city’s first female mayor—were at the heart of the Spain’s financial crisis. Thousands of residents found they were no longer pay their mortgage or afford rent and many were evicted. In fact, before politics, Colau was an anti-eviction activist who eventually ran for mayor on a platform that promised to crackdown on out-of-control visitor numbers.

Her campaign platform included promises to reduce visitor numbers put a hold on the development of new hotels and to increase tourism taxes.

“The city needs some kind of taxation system to offset all the services that the city’s residents would have to pay for otherwise,” said Colau in an interview with Al Jazeera. “The very point of a tax is to redistribute the wealth generated by tourism, or it would be the same old story: tourism generates a lot of profit, but it is very badly distributed.”

Among the challenges facing the city is just how to regulate the out-of-control vacation rentals market, which includes but is not limited those services provided by businesses such as Airbnb. Barcelona officials are facing the same concerns as many cities around the world, that corporate entities are coming in and snapping up residential sites with the sole intent of using them for commercial purposes.

Not only does this drive up the property values it also means fewer locations where locals can live. Ultimately officials are concerned that as residents abandon the city, Barcelona will also lose more of its local culture.

“We need to control [tourism], otherwise we’d end up having a city with just tourist apartments and deserted neighborhoods,” said the city’s chief of tourism, Agusti Colom, in an interview with CBC Canada.

“Barcelona could die of success.”

Neighborhoods Are Losing Their Character

According to the CBC, official city statistics show that in the Gothic neighborhood, nearly a third (27 percent) of available housing is now being used as vacation rentals. What’s more, rents in the same neighborhood have increased by 25 percent in three years. Nearly one-half of the neighborhood’s residents have moved away in the last 10 years.

Last November, the city of Barcelona slapped both Airbnb and Homeaway with a 600,000 euro ($640,000) fine for illegally operating unlicensed tourist properties. Airbnb has 11,000 hosts in the city attracting some 1.25 million guests last year.

The mayor has also enacted a moratorium on all hotels construction, limiting the number of hotel beds in the city to 158,384.

Airbnb is appealing the decision and working with the city to adopt new measures that are satisfactory to all. Among them a proposed regulation that each Airbnb host can only promote one location at a time on the platform.

Vacation rentals aren’t the only target. The mayor has also enacted a moratorium on all hotels construction, limiting the number of hotel beds in the city to 158,384. The eventual goal is to shift some of the accommodations away from the city center.

Needless to say, hotel association and tourism officials are not on board with that plan. Locals, however, complain that the hotel lobby has grown too strong and has become too difficult to regulate.

Beyond accommodations, locals are also bemoaning the loss of many beloved local businesses. Some are closing because they can no longer afford their rents while others are taking the incentives offered by tourism-related entities.

Residents of the city are nearly equally divided on the issue of tourism. In a recent poll, 47.5 percent of residents said they favor measures that limit tourism while 48.9 percent believe the city should actively attract more visitors.

Of course, the challenge in limiting tourism is considering how those limits will affect city finances. Some 14 percent of the city’s economy and 14 percent of its jobs are derived from inbound visitation.

Many of those jobs, however, argue critics are paid less than minimum wage. Which presents two challenges. The first, that those workers do not pay into the city’s tax base. The second is that these workers can’t afford to live in the city in which they work, further driving out locals to make room for more tourism.

The city has issued a Plan Estratégico de Turismo (Strategic Tourism Plan), which it says will focus on a sustainable and responsible growth of tourism. In particular, tourism officials say the city is ditching a “low cost” model and instead will favor quality over quantity.

Most recently, the city has also enacted a new tourism tax, which went into effect on April 1. The tax, which primarily affects visitors staying in “self-catering” apartments, has doubled from approximately 50 cents per person per day to about $1.00 per person per day.

Also affected by the tourist tax are cruise passengers who spend less than 12 hours in the city. Formerly untaxed, these passengers will now see an additional 65 cents added to their cruise bill. The tax rate for any visitors (cruise passengers included) who stay longer than 12 hours remains unchanged at approximately $2.40 per day.

Revenue from the tax will all be funneled towards tourism-related projects, including beach clean ups, road maintenance, and security for high-profile events and festivals.

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Monica Poling, the editor of Travel Glitter, is a Starbucks-addicted, video-game obsessed travel writer with a weakness for hotel rooms with a view, luxury spas, and sometimes Hello Kitty. Her dream trips include ice fishing in Ohio's Put-In Bay, driving Highway 50, the "Loneliest Road," across Nevada and sailing around the horn of South America.

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