Barcelona, a city of 1.6 million people, was visited by 8.2 million tourists last year. For decades, city governments of all political stripes operated under the assumption that ‘growth is good’. Each annual increase in visitor numbers was announced with glee, with assurances the sector would bring immense economic benefits to the city.
But around three years ago, signs began to appear that the pro-tourism consensus was crumbling. It became clear that income generated by tourism was concentrated in the hands of a minority, while its negative consequences were borne by everyone else.
Neighborhood movements sprang up, first in the gothic quarter and the beachside neighborhood of Barceloneta, to protest the behavior of drunk and noisy tourists and, most significantly, the explosion of holiday apartment rentals via platforms like Airbnb. In these central neighborhoods, beds for tourists now outnumber the residential housing offer, and the reduction in housing supply and the subsequent increase in rents are pushing long-term residents out of their homes.
A survey of Barcelona residents this June showed that tourism is now seen as the biggest problem facing the city for the first time.
What was once a problem limited to certain areas has since spread across the city. Barcelona’s famously insubordinate citizens have mobilized in response. There are now tourism degrowth and right-to-housing groups in almost every neighborhood of Barcelona, from Fem SantAntoni, in the trendy Sant Antoni neighborhood, to Ens Plantem in the former industrial quarter of Poblenou. These groups are working together under a citywide umbrella group, the Assembly of Neighborhoods for Sustainable Tourism (ABTS), calling for increased regulation of tourist accommodations.
What makes the situation of Barcelona unique is the combination of social movement mobilization and institutional action.
Workers in the hospitality industry have also organized, most notably the hotel chambermaids known as Las Kellys, to fight against outsourcing, low wages and precarious conditions in the sector. Most recently, renters in the city have established a union to demand rent controls, the restoration of renters’ protections by the central government and to consider rent strikes if their demands are not heeded.
What makes the situation of Barcelona unique is the combination of social movement mobilization and institutional action. In 2015, the citizen platform Barcelona en Comú, led by former housing activist AdaColau, won the Barcelona elections with a promise to bring the voice of social movements to City Hall. The call for the democratic governance of tourism was one of the most urgent of these popular demands. On taking office, Barcelona en Comú announced a moratorium on all new hotels and holiday apartment licenses.
This January, City Hall passed a new, restrictive zoning plan, called the PEUAT, which aims to put an end to the free-for-all that reigned for so long in the tourism industry. As well as a complete halt to all new tourist apartment licenses, the PEUAT includes degrowth of hotels in the city center (when a hotel closes, no new licenses will be given) and a complete ban on any land designated for housing being turned into hotels anywhere in the city.
The ability of the minority city government (Barcelona en Comú has just 11 of the 41 seats on the City Council) to pass what was an even more restrictive plan than originally proposed, was entirely thanks to the pressure that social movements across the city put on all parties in city council to extend degrowth zones to even more neighborhoods.
But despite these successes, Barcelona hasn’t yet managed to tame its biggest adversary: Airbnb. While the city has reached agreements with other rental platforms quickly, Airbnb only agreed to comply with local legislation and stop advertising unlicensed apartments last week. In a recent, headline-making case, a woman was forced to book and occupy her own apartment after discovering that her tenant was illegally subletting it to tourists. She had reported the incident to Airbnb but the company had refused to take any action. The city government has also revealed that it has caught a former Airbnb executive illegally subletting an apartment in the city using the platform. Barcelona has slapped Airbnb with a $700,000 fine and has threatened to prohibit its activity altogether in the city if it doesn’t change its practices.
Time will tell whether Airbnb will stick to its recent promise to obey the law on illegal rentals. When global corporations act with impunity at local level, cities are too often left at their mercy. Those of us who live in Barcelona must hope that a combination of citizen action on the streets and political will in city hall may be enough to bring Airbnb into line and to save this beautiful city from itself.
Kate Shea Bird is a member of the Barcelona en Comú International Committee.
Photo: Royal Square in Barcelona. Credit: Kristina Spisakova.