Water pistol attacks on Barcelona tourists? I’m surprised it didn’t happen sooner

The sight of protesters shooting water pistols at tourists sitting in a cafe in Barcelona over the weekend is clearly not an exciting sight and I would not defend it. But for me, the most surprising thing about the incident is that it didn’t happen more often before.

The water pistols were part of a demonstration by around 3,000 people (that is according to the police, the organizers claimed many more) against the influence of mass tourism in the city. He followed other protests in Malaga, Mallorca and Tenerife fueled by local anger at the impact of increasing tourism on housing, transport and local amenities.

These tensions showed a darker side of tourism that many destinations have promoted so much as they try to stimulate their local economies. The national economies of several Mediterranean countries now depend on it.

In Spain itself, the more than 85 million foreign visitors who come to the country every year represent about 11.6 percent of GDP and 10 percent of jobs. In Greece, the figures are even higher: visitors generate 18 percent of GDP and retain more than a fifth of the workforce as a result. And if you look further afield, the numbers are even slower. About 33 percent of the economy of the Maldives is dependent on tourism.

But it can also be an ugly phenomenon, which can overflow and damage the places and communities it depends on. And I have always had sympathy for those who suffer the negative effects. One image that has stuck in my mind for a long time stems from a television documentary more than 30 years ago about the impact of tourism on Cyprus. It showed an old woman who could no longer find her way around her hometown. It wasn’t dementia that was bothering her. She had become completely unsettled by the sudden transformation of the seaside village where she had spent her whole life into a huge resort.


Venice has long been subject to overcrowding – Getty

What seems to have happened in Spain especially this year is that the number of tourists, which were already causing problems in Barcelona in 2019, – after a temporary relief during the Covid years – is higher again. This has pushed things to a point that not only produces extreme levels of overcrowding during the high season but has started to push local people out of the housing market – especially if the accommodation can be more profitable letting for vacationers. Anecdotally, I have started to notice a rapid increase in the number of key safes attached to the doors of houses and apartment blocks in tourist destinations across Europe – a sure sign that they are being let out to holidaymakers rather than renting them permanently.

Of course, the impact is different for every destination and we shouldn’t be too quick to judge. Tourists are often blamed for ruining Venice; indeed, earlier this year, the city introduced a daily charge of €5 as a way to explore how to control numbers and collect more civic revenue. But in my opinion, the threat to Venice is less than the tourists who abandon the Rialto and St. Mark’s Square, and more its physical vulnerability. A city built of stone with its foundations in lagoon mud will always face a losing battle with the tide and time.

Far from contributing to its destruction, it could be argued that tourism has been crucial to the survival and preservation of Venice over the past 300 years. It could be argued that it was the first city in the world to feel the beneficial effects of tourism. When its trading economy died out in the 18th century, it transformed itself into a pleasure dome, where it combined the attraction of licensed gambling (and a large number of courtiers) with its unique beauty to draw in a stream of wealthy tourists. Not surprisingly, many traveled from British country estates. The palazzi became hotels, the churches recruited a wave of penitents and the gondoliers found a new source of income. In fact, without tourism, Venice would certainly be in a much worse physical condition than it is now. On the other hand, there is always an alarming drop in the number of people living permanently in the city.

Back to Spain and the Mediterranean in general in 2024. Of course, it is not the fault of individual tourists if a city, or resort, or even an entire island is filled with visitors and fails to maintain its accommodation and transport infrastructure. managed. But managing such surges is not easy and there are things individual tourists can do to help. We have a choice about when and where we go on holiday. We know where the pressure points are. Let us give them a break while they deal with their problems.

Barcelona tourism protestersBarcelona tourism protesters

Other destinations don’t have the same housing pressures as Barcelona – Shutterstock

In any case, few of us want to spend our holidays in places where we are likely to be on the front line. There are many other cities in Spain that do not have the same pressures as Barcelona. Valencia is a clear example. In my opinion it is a much more attractive destination and only receives about two million tourists per year compared to the ten million or more who stay a night in Barcelona. Madrid receives its visitors much more efficiently, and there are many other great cities to explore – from Salamanca and Segovia. Maybe it’s time to rethink Majorca and Ibiza – and frankly also Mykonos and Santorini – especially in high season. The world is a big place, let’s explore more. And don’t think of it as giving in to intimidation, but more of spreading love.

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