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Protesters in Barcelona spray tourists with water in overtourism pushback

Barcelona witnessed a dramatic protest last weekend. Local demonstrators took to the streets with water pistols, chanting, “Tourists go home,” and brandishing signs declaring, “Barcelona is not for sale.”

Barcelona witnessed a dramatic protest last weekend. Local demonstrators took to the streets with water pistols, chanting, “Tourists go home,” and brandishing signs declaring, “Barcelona is not for sale.”

The protest, organised by over 140 local organisations led by the Assemblea de Barris pel Decreixement Turístic (Neighborhood Assembly for Tourism Degrowth), aimed to highlight the city’s growing discontent with mass tourism.

Around 3,000 people marched through popular tourist areas, expressing their frustration with the impact of mass tourism on their city’s living costs and quality of life, with hotel and restaurant entrances symbolically closed off.

Iconic Barcelona, a city with an approximate population of 1.6 million, receives an astonishing number of tourists annually. In 2023, almost 12 million visitors spent at least one night in the Barcelona region, contributing €12.75 billion (AU$20.5 billion) to the local economy.

However, the Assemblea de Barris pel Decreixement Turístic argues that these tourists drive up prices and strain public services and infrastructure, including public transport, while the profits from the tourism industry are unevenly distributed, exacerbating social inequality.

The organisation has outlined 13 proposals aimed at reducing the number of visitors and transitioning Barcelona to a more sustainable tourism model. These include closing cruise ship terminals, imposing stricter regulations on tourist accommodations, and ceasing public spending on tourism promotion.

Barcelona’s mayor, Jaume Collboni, has acknowledged the challenges posed by mass tourism and recently introduced several measures to mitigate its impact. Among these measures is an increase in the nightly tourist tax to €4 (AU$7.20) and a cap on the number of cruise ship passengers.

Additionally, Collboni announced plans to end short-term rental licenses for over 10,000 apartments by 2028, aiming to make housing more affordable for long-term residents. He noted that rents have surged by 68 per cent over the past decade, while the cost of purchasing a home has risen by 38 per cent.

Despite his efforts, Collboni has faced criticism for permitting high-profile events such as a Louis Vuitton catwalk show in architect Antoni Gaudí’s Parc Güell in May and the upcoming America’s Cup sailing competition. Critics argue that such events contribute to the very issues the city is trying to address.

This latest demonstration is part of a larger movement in Spain, with similar protests occurring recently in the Canary Islands and Mallorca.

In Málaga earlier this year, locals expressed their frustration by plastering the centre of the Spanish city with stickers on walls and doors, telling visitors what residents think of them.

The messages ranged from the fairly mild “this used to be my home” (antes esta era mi casa) and “this used to be the city centre” (antes esto era el centro) right up to “go f*cking home” (a tu puta casa), “stinking of tourist” (apestando a turista).

Meanwhile, in Mallorca last summer, activists put up false warning signs at beaches across Mallorca to keep English-speaking tourists away.

Some posters warned of “dangerous jellyfish”, “falling rocks,” or seawater polluted with sewage.

Others said the beach was closed with a ‘no swimming’ symbol below or warned that it takes hours to walk there despite the ocean being less than 100 metres away.

However, a few small lines of text in Catalan underneath revealed to locals that these warnings weren’t real.

They explained that “the problem isn’t a rockfall, it’s mass tourism” or that the “beach is open, except for foreigners and jellyfish.”

Crowds in La Gomera Island, Canary Islands

These grievances are becoming more commonplace in many tourist hotspots globally, which have seen record visitor numbers as the travel industry rebounds from the pandemic-induced downturn.

While the influx of tourists can boost local economies and benefit hospitality businesses, it also brings significant downsides, including increased noise, pollution, traffic, and pressure on resources. This, in turn, lowers the quality of life for residents and diminishes the visitor experience.

In response, many popular tourist destinations have implemented initiatives and restrictions to combat overtourism. These measures often include new or increased tourist taxes, campaigns to discourage problematic visitor behaviour, and attendance caps at major attractions.

Barcelona’s current struggle with mass tourism highlights the complex balance cities must strike between welcoming visitors and maintaining a livable environment for residents. While the city’s efforts to address these issues are commendable, they illustrate the broader challenges faced by tourist destinations worldwide in managing the impact of an ever-growing number of travellers.

What can travel advisors do to combat overtourism? Start by educating and informing clients about what’s going on in tourism hotspots and, in some cases, suggesting alternative destinations and travel seasons that are better suited.