terça-feira, 22 de novembro de 2016
Barcelona’s war on tourists
Barcelona’s war on tourists
Locals feel they are being priced out by the visiting hordes, and the mayor agrees.
By DIEGO TORRES 11/22/16, 8:45 PM CET Updated 11/23/16, 6:09 AM CET
BARCELONA — The battle lines in Barcelona have been drawn. On one side, the masses of tourists who flock to the city every year. On the other, locals fed up with rising rents, crowded streets, drunken antics and expensive bars. The city’s mayor feels their pain.
“We don’t want the city to become a cheap souvenir shop,” said Ada Colau, who came to power in 2015 and has been described as “the world’s most radical mayor.”
Colau made her name campaigning against the increasing number of evictions and foreclosures in Spain after the financial crisis, before turning her sights on the tourism industry. Her local election campaign examined the “tourist bubble” and promised to bring the situation under control, propelling her leftist coalition — Barcelona en Comú (Barcelona in Common) — to victory.
It’s a difficult game to play. Barcelona gets around 30 million visitors a year, according to local government figures, bringing in a huge amount of money to the city of 1.6 million. The impact those tourists are having on rental prices, however, is a major concern for locals, with opinion polls putting it as the second biggest problem for residents, after unemployment.
“We don’t want a city only for tourists,” said Colau from her office in city hall, using crowded Venice as an example of what she doesn’t want Barcelona to become.
The mayor said her city will always be welcoming to visitors, but the tourism industry is driving up rents and forcing out locals. She wants a new model that encourages sustainable tourism and benefits all local people, not just the wealthy, while preserving the traditional features of Barcelona’s old neighborhoods.
The question is: Does such a model exist?
For decades, cities have sought new ways to promote tourism. Little research has been carried out into how to manage tourism that is disrupting the local population.
If Colau can make it work, authorities in the likes of Hong Kong, Venice and Amsterdam will be very interested. Citizens in all three have been putting politicians under increasing pressure to strike a balance between the economic advantages of tourism and its less welcome side-effects, against a backdrop of massive global travel growth and the development of disruptive technologies.
The not-sharing economy
Colau approved a series of controversial measures after taking power: She froze handing out licenses for all new hospitality establishments, including hotels and private apartments — despite 15,000 pending requests — and launched an assault on short-term rentals through sites such as Airbnb, which she blames for the lack of affordable housing in the city.
The town hall slapped Airbnb with a €30,000 fine for advertising unlicensed vacation homes — a spokesman for the U.S.-based company said Barcelona was the first city in the world to fine Airbnb — and has threatened to increase the penalty to €600,000 if the firm refuses to play ball.
Colau also created a 20-strong team dedicated to scouring the internet in search of illegal tourist apartments, who then go door to door hunting down lawbreakers. She also encouraged citizens to report neighbors who rent out their apartments without the correct paperwork.
In July and August, the town hall reported that 615 illegal tourist apartments in the city had been located and their owners fined €30,000 each and ordered to cease and desist.
The effect of these measures is yet to be seen. The number of hotel guests in Barcelona grew by 5.4 percent in 2015 and long-term rental prices have increased by 30 percent since Colau became mayor. The growth in Madrid, where no such measures have been introduced, was 19 percent over the same period, according to the real-estate website Idealista.
Colau’s crackdown has generated fierce opposition from the hospitality business and Colau’s political opponents, who fear she will kill the goose that lays the golden egg. Tourism generates between 10 and 12 percent of Barcelona’s economic output and 14 percent of jobs in the city.
“She’s put many new investments at risk in a city whose main industry is tourism,” said Carina Mejías, who leads centrist opposition Ciudadanos’ group in the town hall and labels Colau a “radical-left populist.”
“It is disappointing to see the city hall intimidate locals with archaic rules that threaten an economic lifeline for thousands,” said Andreu Castellano, a spokesman for Airbnb in Barcelona, referring to letters sent to citizens encouraging them to snitch on their neighbors.
Representatives of the sharing economy argue that the city hall makes no distinction between people who rent out a room in their own house on a short-term basis and those who rent out a whole empty house.
They also complain that the number of holiday homes is too small to be blamed for rising rents. Airbnb has 22,000 advertisements listed in Barcelona, a city with around 1 million houses.
Even international organizations are concerned about the path the city is taking. “The world is looking at Barcelona,” said Taleb Rifai, the head of the United Nations’ organization for tourism (UNWTO), adding that the city has become a “global icon” and a case study on how to successfully promote tourism.
“Please don’t let us down,” Rifai said.
Priced out, driven out
Colau’s message has, however, found fertile ground among neighbors who complain about the negative impact of tourism.
María Montero, a 38-year-old physiotherapist who pays €575 a month for a 30-square-meter studio in Sant Antoni (at the edge of the city center), has been living in Barcelona for 20 years.
Montero said she has been forced to change her usual bike ride to work in order to avoid the huge crowds of sightseers on the iconic La Rambla, and she avoids the Gothic Quarter altogether because of the tourists, the high prices and the awful service. She said she once sat at a bar in the Rabal Quarter and was unable to order a beer in Spanish or Catalan, because the waiter could only speak English.
Local data shows that over the past eight years the Ciutat Vella district, which covers the entire city center, has seen its population drop by 11 percent. In some areas, the numbers are even more dramatic: the Gothic Quarter lost 45 percent of its inhabitants in the same period.
Even the tourists complain. According to a poll carried out by city hall, 58 percent of visitors said that Barcelona is too crowded.
Rifai of the UN warned against policies designed to appease the anti-tourist sentiment of locals, such as opposing limits on the number of tourists that can enter the city and the freezing of licenses for new hotels.
Instead, Rifai said, problems can be solved through higher taxes on hospitality businesses in the city center, in order to encourage tourists to go to the periphery. “It’s called crowd-management […] and that’s the way Barcelona should go,” he said.
Colau favors a more direct approach. In March, she pushed a plan which forbids any new tourist license in the whole of Ciutat Vella and some other areas close to the city center.
The plan — which is still being negotiated and has come under fire from opposition politicians — would force any new business to the outskirts of the city. While the plan is being debated, the ban on all new licenses continues to apply.
Manel Casals, head of traditional hospitality business association Gremi d’Hotels de Barcelona, said the plan is too restrictive. However, he supports the crackdown on Airbnb and the like.
Barcelona “needs to chose between becoming the next Detroit or the next Venice,” said Fernando Encinar, co-founder of Idealista. He said Barcelona had invested a lot over decades to promote itself as a tourist destination and has no viable alternative.
Colau is adamant she is doing the right thing, saying that tourism reminds her of the real-estate bubble she fought hard against as an activist. “The only battle that is lost is that that we don’t fight,” she said.