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Tourism in Barcelona — more than half year in the shadows

Judit Alonso
April 3, 2018

The volatile political situation in Catalonia as well as security concerns have cast a dark shadow over the fortunes of Barcelona's tourism industry midterm, hurting the region's economy and jobs. Judit Alonso reports.

Spanien Katalonien Kirche La Sagrada Familia von Antoni Gaudi in Barcelona
Image: picture-alliance/robertharding/N. Clark

Tourism in Barcelona has taken a hit in recent times, even though over six months have passed since a brutal terrorist attack shook this vibrant Catalan city.    

The area of Las Ramblas — one of the city's favorite tourist destinations where people walk down the wide, pedestrianized path in the center of the street — was the site of a horrific atrocity that killed 13 people and injured at least 130 others.

Barcelona's tourism industry, a major economic source for the city, is still reeling from its aftereffects. Data released by the city council show that visitor numbers were down 4.2 percent during the last three months of 2017, compared with the same period a year earlier.

With a number of black and white blocks located in and around this popular street, Las Ramblas lost its main character: freedom. But the terrorist attack was not the only reason behind the drop in tourist numbers. The intensifying Catalan independence movement, with its accompanying unrest, has also dampened interest in the city and hurt economic activity. 

Fewer bookings from visitors have forced some hotels to reduce prices in order to stimulate demand. "The rooms were half price compared to the first time I came," Ian, an international correspondent who visited Barcelona several times to cover the Catalan political crisis, told DW.

Martin, who runs a nightclub tour operator company, shares a similar view. "You could find three-star hotels in Ramblas for €40," he said.

According to Barcelona's professional hotels association, revenues declined 15 percent in October and November as well as 25 percent in December. Five-star hotels, meanwhile, suffered a drop of around 35 percent in December.

Infografik Touristen in Barcelona ENG

Nothing to celebrate

The Las Ramblas terror attack happened during one of the most visited weekends in the city. It coincided with the cruise season and the beginning of the traditional celebration in Gracia's district, fiestas de Gracia. This is one of the main summer events that every year attracts thousands of visitors.

Just a couple of weeks before the attack, citizens had organized demonstrations against tourist overcrowding in the city. Some of them turned into attacks against tourist buses and rental bike services.

Jordi Clos, president of Barcelona's professional hotels association, criticized these actions as "opposite messages about tourism activity in our city." He was worried about tourists getting an impression that they were not welcome in Barcelona.

"Barcelona is being excluded from the list of candidate cities for the organization of trade fairs, congresses, conventions or business meetings. We receive fewer requests than before," said Clos. "The most negative thing is that there isn't a change of dynamics. It affects us now and it will do so next year," he added.

Black summer

The Ramblas terror attack hit the fortunes of Barcelona's tourism sector hard. "In the weeks after the terrorist attack, the tourist flow went down," Martin told DW. Nevertheless, according to Barcelona's city council data, booking cancellations were concentrated on the first three days after the incident.

Also, international flight bookings to Barcelona were down by around 20 percent and domestic flight bookings by around 11 percent. But the situation improved four weeks later, unlike in cities like London and Paris where the time needed to recover from terror attacks proved to be much longer. "Barcelona was able to recover faster than other cities that suffered similar attacks," Agusti Colom, the councilor for business and tourism, told DW.

But these two European capitals didn't have to face another fact: a political crisis that complicated this delicate situation. "Gradually, everything started to normalize until the brutal repression of the Spanish government against the Catalan civilians who were organizing an illegal referendum," said Martin.

"After that, tourist numbers went down because the international press put the focus on the bloody riots. Since then, we have noticed a decrease of around 50 percent in the number of tourists," he added.

A sunny spring?

Located a few meters from Las Ramblas is the tourist market "La Boqueria." Juan has worked in a Spanish ham shop just at the entrance of the market for two years, and he has witnessed the impact on tourism firsthand. "Nobody wants to go to a place where you will not know what you can find in there," he said.

Due to the drop in tourism, "we had to let go of two employees in January," Juan told DW.

This is a familiar situation for Martin. "A dedicated self-employed tour operator for seven years, the decrease in the flow of tourists made me look for a job during the low season, in winter," he said.

For this reason, he was involved with the activities related to the Mobile World Congress, the world's largest exhibition for the mobile industry, gaining employment for 20 days.

Held at the end of February, the event drew over 108,000 visitors to the city. According to Barcelona's professional hotels association, the hotel occupancy rate during the period was 100 percent. "Now, I'm living near Las Ramblas and I started to notice that tourism picked up. Luckily!” said Martin. "I believe that after this international congress the tourist activity will return to normal, as the fear of visiting Barcelona is disappearing," he added.

Colom expects that this year will be better than the past ones. "We have some data in January that show us this," he told DW. But the Catalan political situation, still uncertain and tense, continues to cast a dark shadow over the fortunes of Barcelona's tourism sector.