Future scenarios of tourism in Barcelona

As long as our tourism sector is based on the creation of poorly-paid jobs, not only does it create scant value but redistributes this to the benefit of tourists and tourist operators, and to the detriment of the rest of society. The current model is leading us to a serious conflict.

© Maria Corte

In this decade, for the first time in the history of mankind, there will be more people living in cities than in the countryside. This is yet another consequence of a broader process, namely the explosion of the urban phenomenon in the last 20 years. Cities are the most evident geographical reading of what we have termed globalisation. In the course of 25 years, Barcelona has gone from anonymity to global notoriety. This is a very long leap in a very short time, logically generating imbalances and a sensation of vertigo.

Attractive cities have the capacity to entice talent, investment, residents, students, international congresses, trade fairs, cruise liners, music festivals and start-ups that might change the world. As well as tourists, of course. The large tourist cities are, first and foremost, global cities, perceived as centres for initiatives, experiences and opportunities. Indeed, the statistics consider that a programmer who attends the Mobile World Congress, an architect who uses local suppliers, a Ukrainian who hires the services of an ophthalmologist, or an economics student who attends a congress are tourists just like the family that spends two days in the city after a cruise around the Mediterranean. This is why it is not possible to address the debate on Barcelona’s tourism model without considering the debate on the model of the city itself. 

The city’s success is based on the internationalisation of some of its icons focused in a specific period (the 19th Century) and particularly one figure, Antoni Gaudí. In a study undertaken by INSETUR, based on photographs posted on the portal Flickr, it transpired that one third of all images taken of the city focus on just four elements: the Sagrada Família, Park Güell, La Pedrera and Casa Batlló. Consequently, the movement of tourists is extremely concentrated in just a few districts. There are therefore two cities: one that polarises this the activity and another one that lives on the fringe of it. Many of the negative effects of tourism on Barcelona’s urban and social fabric may be accounted for by this extraordinary concentration.

Metropolitan tourism does not follow the normal tourism dynamics. It generates medium-to-high end accommodation, with short stays, high mean expenditure and little seasonal variation. Beyond these general patterns, it is difficult to talk about the metropolitan tourism model, and therefore Barcelona’s tourism model. Tourism products that are unrelated to each other coexist in metropolitan spaces. Cruise liner tourism, medical tourism, the pull of the Fira trade fair complex, professional tourism, sports tourism, major musical events or luxury tourism each have their own ,completely different, ways of working, circuits, systems of hiring and promotion, images and effects. There is no Barcelona tourism model, because Barcelona is the setting for extraordinarily different tourism products (and therefore tourist consumers). One of the most frequent mistakes made when analysing tourism in the city is regarding it as a compact and closed model, usually reduced to a caricature.

The analyses on the impact of tourism are often simplified into an equation containing its economic effect and effects on everyday and social life. Moreover, this is often addressed as a compensation between the benefits of tourism and the detriment to the local population, like a set of scales with two arms. But Metropolitan systems are, by definition, open and complex. This means that tourism is the cause and effect of many other social and economic processes that operate simultaneously, like pieces of clockwork. An analysis of the effects (positive and negative) of tourism on the city is only possible by means of a broader analysis of its economic, social and cultural structure.

Summarising, the debate about tourism in the city of Barcelona lacks nuances, complexity and cross-referenced interpretations. Just like the old debate proposed by Umberto Eco between the apocalyptic and the integrated, any assessment of tourism in the city always swings between one of the two extremes. But the time has come to bring greyscales into the assessment of metropolitan tourism, because only a precise diagnosis can yield an accurate response strategy. It is even more difficult to project the 2025 scenario. Despite this, allow me to speculate on some possible future scenarios. I fear that no answer will be forthcoming, because the complexity of tourism mechanisms does not allow for simplistic projections.

Scenario 1. The collapsed city

All the projections made by international organisations forecast a massive increase in the number of tourists in the coming years. In a scenario following our current trajectory it is easy to imagine that congestion problems will multiply and that certain neighbourhoods’ specialisation in tourism will accentuate the border between the tourist city and the residential city. Apart from any urban conflict, the oversaturation of these spaces will weaken the city’s competitiveness in terms of tourism and will compromise its viability.

Scenario 2. The secondary city

In a context of urban competition, the classic cities are consolidated and new metropolis join, particularly from Asia and South America. Barcelona loses its international relevance and becomes a secondary metropolitan space. This will stabilise the city’s tourist appeal, but it will lose its pulling power and some of the anchors that might sustain its future strategy. The city may recover its status as a Mediterranean capital and reinforce its regional attributes, albeit to the detriment of its international image.

Scenario 3. The innovative city

Barcelona consolidates its international image as a place of innovation and manages to attract companies, studios and residents linked to the general innovation sphere. This allows an exponential increase in the growth of business tourism: between 1990 and 2015, business tourism has doubled, whereas recreational tourism has multiplied tenfold. Barcelona also becomes the capital of tourist innovation and bolsters its condition as an open laboratory for new tourism channels, from the so-called collaborative tourism to e-tourism and more particularly mobile tourism. The city is a cosmopolitan and universal benchmark, but finds it difficult to maintain its traditional core.

Scenario 4. The open city

The city’s decentralisation strategy, the centrifugal force of tourism, leads it from a dual to a polynodal structure. The districts come to the fore, to the detriment of nodal concentration. Tourism becomes more dispersed and also manages to establish links with other Catalan cities. The move from concentration to dispersion helps to relieve the pressure on certain districts, while at the same time helping to integrate local elements into the image the city projects to tourists.

Barcelona’s future as a tourist destination will result from the combination of two forces. Firstly, the external forces that account for the probable emergence of new world-cities and increased tourist and non-tourist flows globally. Secondly, public and private strategies that are capable of offsetting the main negative effects (concentration, gentrification, functional specialisation, loss of the traditional social fabric, trivialisation) and of promoting the positive ones (innovation, distribution, identity, attraction capacity and new business). 


José A. Donaire

University of Girona

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *