Already plagued by long security queues at airports, holidaymakers visiting top destinations in Spain face more vacation woes once they arrive. Anti-tourism activists have been targeting Barcelona, Majorca, Valencia and San Sebastián with protests – some of them involving violence. The goal seems to be to rail against the negative impact of mass tourism on local life and living standards.
In Barcelona, which welcomes some 32 million visitors annually, a sightseeing bus was attacked at the end of July as it arrived at FC Barcelona’s iconic Camp Nou stadium. Masked assailants slashed the tyres and daubed graffiti on the sides of the bus.
They sprayed the message (in Catalan) “tourism kills neighbourhoods” in orange paint on the windscreen. Passengers, including several Britons, said they initially thought they were under attack from terrorists. Elsewhere in the city, bicycles rented out to tourists have been vandalised and rendered unusable.
Days earlier, a group of around 20 anti-tourism activists brandishing flares and placards burst into the popular Mar de Nudos restaurant in Palma, the capital of holiday island Majorca. They showered the mainly foreign customers with confetti, before staging a smoke-filled protest next to luxury yachts moored in the marina.
In a video posted later on social media, the campaigners urged others to join them in bringing chaos to bear on the “mass tourism that is destroying Majorca and condemns the working classes to a life of misery”. Following the incident, graffiti has appeared speaking out against tourist apartments and the “invasion” by café terraces on Palma’s popular Calle Blanquerna.
In Valencia, protesters occupied a rental apartment used for city breaks and unfurled a banner on the balcony decrying the tourism-driven gentrification of the area and demanding that housing be used to meet the needs of locals.
Previously, an estimated 100 locals dressed up as tourists and paraded through the streets, satirising visitor behaviour (including urinating against walls) as a protest against “touristification”.
Meanwhile, in San Sebastián, where a population of 180,000 greeted two million tourists in 2016, “tourists go home” slogans by pro-Basque, left-wing groups have appeared on city walls. There are fears that the actions will escalate further, with a street demonstration planned for the height of the mid-August Semana Grande fiestas. The prospect of trouble is, unsurprisingly, a major worry for the city and the Basque Country generally, which have enjoyed an impressive upturn in tourism since separatist group ETA ended its campaign of violence in 2011.
Tourism industry leaders are at pains to stress that the protests should be taken with a pinch of salt. They claim the attacks are clearly part of the pro-independence agendas of a small number of radical and anarchist movements. That’s why the incidents have been concentrated in Catalonia, the Basque Country and the Balearic Islands.
However, the high profile actions are sparking fresh debate on the Spanish tourism model and its arguably unsustainable visitor numbers. This is particularly pressing in a year designated International Year of Sustainable Tourism for Development by the UN.
Spain is the world’s third most visited country. Last year, it posted a new record of 75 million tourists, nearly 17 million of them British. According to the World Travel and Tourism Council, the total contribution of travel and tourism to Spain’s economy in 2016 was €158.9 billion, or 14.2% of GDP. That figure is expected to rise by nearly 4% by the end of 2017. The sector accounts for an estimated 2.7m direct and indirect jobs in the country.
However, the picture isn’t entirely positive. Luxury hotels have been built in Lanzarote, for example, without planning permission. They did come with juicy backhanders for mayors, though. In Santa Cruz de Tenerife, developers bought up cheap tracts of land on the eve of the announcement of a major beach development after colluding with local officials. The land was promptly sold off to the council for the flagship regeneration project at a massively inflated price. Culprits on both sides of that particular scandal were sentenced to a total of 33 years in prison.
Fuelled in part by the understandably angry reaction to such corruption, there is little doubt that the message of anti mass-tourism campaigners is falling on fertile ground, despite widespread criticism of their aggressive methods. There is increasing sympathy for local residents and businesses who are being squeezed out of destinations by spiralling rents and property prices, not to mention for the young people denied a decent and stable living due to tourism’s low-wage and long-hour employment.
Far from being simply another headline-grabbing fad cooked up by anti-establishment groups, the incidents may speak to a much wider and more receptive audience. A survey commissioned by Barcelona council found that locals consider tourism to be the city’s second most pressing problem, after unemployment. It is a view shared by Barcelona’s leftist mayor, Ana Colau, who was criticised last week for not denouncing the sightseeing bus attack immediately.
A year before taking up office, Colau took to the UK media to bemoan the evils of a tourism-saturated city and reveal her fears that Barcelona could become the next Venice. Even if not enjoying the same explicit political support elsewhere, the anti-tourism mobilisations of recent weeks may have touched a nerve and could spread to other parts of the country.
Karl McLaughlin, Senior Lecturer in Spanish, Manchester Metropolitan University.
This article first appeared on The Conversation.