How can a city with a unemployment rate of 19 percent scoff at any industry, especially one that accounts for 15 percent of its GDP? That was my first thought when I heard that the city of Barcelona is actively pursuing a strategy to keep tourists out. Then again, the issue of tourism and economic development is a complicated one and one that inspires strong emotions.
With its newly-elected Mayor, Ada Colau , leading the charge, the city of Barcelona (population 2 million) is on a ‘tourists go away’ kick. As this article from Bloomberg Business explains, Ms. Colau, along with a coalition of environmentalists and social activists, tends to see the dark side of visitors. They clog up local markets where locals want to buy their groceries; they encourage hotel development which crowds out housing; and honestly they can be pretty obnoxious to be around (okay, strictly speaking that’s not something that has been said, but it certainly has been implied). The poster-child for tourism-gone-bad is apparently Venice, which has basically become a theme-park for visitors and a place where fewer and fewer Italian citizens actually live (population has been on the decline since the 1960s). Barcelona doesn’t want to become Venice.
Then again, it depends who you ask. Visitors to Barcelona spend $13.9 billion annually and the tourism industry supports 100,000 jobs. You would have to be pretty tone-deaf on economic issues to want to destroy that. Indeed, the previous municipal government in Barcelona had plans to increase tourism from its current 7.5 million to 10 million per year, which would seem to make economic sense. Ms. Colau’s argument is that having those scruffy tourists around brings down locals’ quality of life, which is probably true in a sense. Wherever you live, it is somewhat annoying to not be able to find a table at your favorite café because its been overtaken by visitors. Then again, that’s a less serious problem than having crowds of unemployed young people swamping the streets because there are no jobs available.
Where I do agree with Ms. Colau and her supporters is in their argument that tourism tends to produce lower-quality jobs than many other industries. In a piece for the Guardian newspaper last year, she argued that many service sector jobs were producing slave-like working conditions. If that’s the case, that is certainly something she as a politician should indeed take a hard stand on, making it clear that employers must adhere to labor laws. And, if she can attract higher-value added industries – in tech or health care or whatever else – then of course she should do so.
Personally, I wonder if the whole keep tourists-out-of-Barcelona strategy is going to backfire spectacularly. I have only been to Barcelona once, but I remember it as an awesome place full of breathtaking architecture, amazing food, sunny skies and a lovely beach. Seeing Ms. Colau’s campaign splashed across the news this morning made me think I’d like to visit again. I doubt I’m the only one.