The beguiling capital of Catalonia is cradled between the Mediterranean and the Montserrat mountain range, and the benefactor of the cuisine and viniculture of both bounties. With near-perfect weather year round, miles and miles of beaches, iconic parks, striking architecture and colorful neighborhoods that march to their own beat, it’s always been one of my favorite cities and it comes as no surprise to me to see that Barcelona rose to #5 in our recent 2019 World’s Best Cities ranking
Not surprisingly, it’s one of the planet’s most-visited cities where runaway home sharing abuse and threat to livability for citizens erupted in street protests and tourist confrontations three out of the past four years.
LEADERSHIP IN OVERTOURISM
But despite the city’s association with crowds in the Old Town or queues outside of Park Guell, the city is also a global leader in forward-thinking, unprecedented solutions to stemming overtourism.
City managers have been working for many years to develop mechanisms to better manage tourism and the destination has always been transparent in its attempt at finding a solution—almost every report is available online in either English or Spanish—in effect becoming a sort of open source city for other destinations grappling with both the opportunities and issues that come with hosting and accommodating more visitors..
Last month, at World Travel Market in London, the city was the overall winner of the World Responsible Tourism Awards for its approach to managing the growth of tourism in the city, and a session titled “What can we learn from Barcelona?” looked under the hood of the Spanish city’s challenges and successes. That week, I also hosted a session with Turisme de Barcelona Managing Director Joan Torrella on “Overtourism and Place Identity” at the City Nation Place conference.
What become clear is just how empathetic the city is to visitors.
“Barcelona has made a real effort not to scapegoat tourists for overtourism,” noted session moderator and WTM Responsible Tourism Advisor Harold Goodwin in his welcome.
“We need to consider tourists in Barcelona as temporary citizens with rights and duties.”
— Joan Torrella, Managing Director, Turisme de Barcelona
“Tourism is the way it is because of how Barcelona is and Barcelona is how it is today thanks to tourism,” said panelist Joan Torrella, Managing Director, Turisme de Barcelona, “It is impossible to separate the two. We need to consider tourists in Barcelona as temporary citizens with rights and duties. We consider tourism as part of the city. It is not a separate thing.”
He outlined the dizzying growth of tourism in Barcelona—from three million tourists in 1993 to more than 17 million today.
“Approximately 10 years ago we saw the imbalance of tourism and the supply and demand and quality of life for residents,” he said.
“In 2010 Barcelona created the Department of Tourism with the City Council and started our plans to move from marketing to tourists to managing our tourists. Tourisme Barcelona became a DMMO—the second M is for Management,” he said. “We don’t need more tourists. We need to ensure tourism improves the quality of life for our residents.”
The commitment to management of tourism as a resource to help improve the long-term sustainability of Barcelona resulted in 2015’s Strategic Plan For Tourism 2020.
Attendee and fellow panel organizer Martin Brackenbury, Managing Partner, Brackenbury & Partners, called the newly published Barcelona 2020 strategy “a document that sets out so well all the interlinking factors,” adding that “it’s a very serious piece of work that should be very much admired” for how it integrates tourism as part of governing and managing the whole city.
The panel then dove deep into the 10 tenets of their blueprint, offering fascinating insights behind the vision.
WE HAVE A PLAN FOR GOVERNING TOURISM COLLECTIVELY
Barcelona receives over 30 million visitors every year, a reality that means moving from a promotional strategy to another that opts for a comprehensive management of tourism, publicly-led and ensuring that tourist policies respond to the general interests of the city. Tourism requires a cross-cutting approach and a diverse range of tools, projects and players involved; coordinating and involving them are key to guaranteeing that the goals proposed under the Strategic Tourism Plan for 2020 can be achieved. Given the global challenges that tourism raises, we in Barcelona wish to strengthen our ties with other cities and destinations, to share experiences and embark on collective projects that enable us to tackle these challenges.
Goodwin, the panel moderator, noted that such transparency is unique to Barcelona. “One of the things that’s striking about Barcelona is its heritage of struggle for independence has left Barcelona with a kind of democracy rarely seen in a city,” he noted. “You don’t have an inheritance of democracy; you created your democracy own response to your inheritance [of autocracy],” he said.
“But those very strong democratic institutions, the idea that the head of the private sector of tourism in Barcelona can we held to account in a public forum by the citizens of Barcelona—which is what happens in the City’s Tourism Council—is an extraordinary thing internationally.”
WE HAVE A PLAN FOR GENERATING AND DISSEMINATING KNOWLEDGE
Knowledge in the ﬁeld of urban tourism is essential for managing and taking decisions. We in Barcelona are only too aware of its importance. Considerable effort has been made to generate and publish a diverse range of information on tourist activities and studies have been conducted analysing economic impact, tourist proﬁles and public perceptions of tourism, among other things. This knowledge needs broadening on issues such as environmental costs and quality of jobs in the sector, and the public has to be provided with better information on tourism. The Tourism Observatory will be coordinating and spearheading this research.
Agustí Colom, fellow panelist and Barcelona City Councillor for tourism, commerce and markets, explained how the Tourism Observatory was a vital initial step for understanding the problem. “We needed to empower our collaborations with local partners with information,” he said. The observatory is an integrated intelligence space that collects, generates and coordinates information and knowledge on tourist activities. This data is then enhanced via partnerships with local research companies and universities that are engaged to help develop solutions. Colom also noted that public and private players are kept up to date with a rich stream of up-to-date information about tourism trends and forecasts.
3. DESTINATION BARCELONA
WE HAVE A PLAN FOR PROMOTING THE DESTINATION’S SUSTAINABILITY
Sustainability is a crucial element for destination Barcelona, a goal that also aims to guarantee the competitiveness of tourist activities, to avoid jeopardizing the destination’s future, to improve the quality of urban life and to manage the impact of tourist activity, ensuring social return and the territory’s development. The Strategic Plan understands sustainability from a broad perspective: social, economic and environmental, setting out a dynamic, welcoming, innovative and desirable destination on a metropolitan scale. Promotion tools, conceived as another management element, have to respond to these goals.
Panelist Anna Sánchez, Head of the Tourist Promotion Office, Diputació de Barcelona, noted that the need to “share the wealth of tourism” with the surrounding regions became a priority in 2012. “That’s when we launched our campaign, “Barcelona is much more.” It focused on all the things you can do in the Barcelona are within 60 or 90 minutes—The Pyrenees Mountains, the wine regions. You have a new portfolio of products that allow you to visit Barcelona even for a day, yet see so much more.”
The biggest step for the regional approach to tourism management, she added, happened last year, when the Barcelona Convention Bureau became Europe’s first DMMO for both a city and wider region. “There’s new possibilities for events and incentives,” Sánchez said. “You can stay in Barcelona or in venue outside the city,” she said, adding that the information-sharing of tourist data is much more robust and effective when it can scale across the entire region.
She also noted now, thanks to social media and the search for authenticity, moving tourists around is becoming easier as travelers clamor to unearth the next secret spot as opposed to join the tourist queue.
WE HAVE A PLAN FOR MANAGING TOURIST MOBILITY
Tourist uses of mobility, along with tourist accommodation and attractions, are one of the key aspects we propose to tackle. We need to know our visitors’ reasons for staying here, their journeys’ seasonal variations and duration, the means of transport they use and their most frequent itineraries, so we can rethink, manage and regulate the speciﬁc practices of tourist mobility. The plan aims to put special emphasis on knowledge and managing mobility in crowded spaces such as Sagrada Família and Park Güell.
Torrella noted how, when it comes to adhering to Barcelona’s Smart Cities principles of avoiding long commute times an avoiding car travel, tourists are setting the example. “A big majority of tourists use transit or walk,” he said, noting how their mobility is inspirational to what’s possible for other residents.
WE HAVE A PLAN TO ENSURE RESPONSIBLE TOURIST ACCOMMODATION
Barcelona has recorded a sharp increase in tourist accommodation offers over the last few years and the sudden appearance of new types, raising new challenges for planning. The plan provides for the launching of strategies that ensure tourist accommodation has a better relationship with its environment, promote its social and environmental responsibility and highlight good practices.
Approved under the framework of this strategy, the Special Urban Development Plan for Tourist Accommodation (PEUAT) continues to ensure social and economic balance in areas with greater tourist pressure while putting the priority on maintaining and attracting the resident population and preventing tourist accommodation from replacing the residential use of properties. It also provides for active policies for ﬁghting illegality, in collaboration with websites offering tourist accommodation, as well as the creation of a mediation service to help local residents and tourists staying in local accommodation live side by side.
Moderator Goodwin noted how Barcelona’s approach to managing home sharing platforms was exemplary, noting the city’s use of a hotline to report illegal rentals, a well-publicized tourist website to check in their rental was legal, to partnerships with the local tax authority to investigate if the right tax was being paid by homeowners who rented their properties.
Colom added that the initiatives decreased the amount of illegal home rentals from “thousands” to under 100 today.
6. MANAGING SPACES
WE HAVE A PLAN FOR ENSURING AN URBAN BALANCE
Tourist activities make intensive use of certain places and neighbourhoods in the city and this has to be reconciled with the city’s ongoing, everyday life. These areas will see the implementation of a series of measures and tools agreed to between all the public and private players, who will intervene to reduce the pressure created by large numbers of visitors and maintain the local commercial network. Policies will be implemented to counteract pressure on the property market. We will be generating a new stable management model for crowded spaces which applies improvements agreed to between the various parties and creates wealth that is fairly and sustainably distributed.
The panel discussed how place management demonstrates to locals that their experience matters. At Park Güell, for example, residents have free access whereas tourists pay.
7. ECONOMIC DEVELOPMENT
WE HAVE A PLAN FOR REDISTRIBUTING THE BENEFITS OF TOURISM
Ensuring the redistribution of the wealth brought by tourism for the entire population is one of the goals of the Strategic Plan. If we are to achieve that we need to take advantage of the developmental potential of tourism as a lever for launching other economic sectors, helping to strengthen the territory’s production network and integrating tourist activities into local economic development. Initiatives are also needed for ensuring quality, inclusive, innovative and competitive jobs in the tourist sector, such as promoting establishments that create stable work conditions or launching initiatives for training and providing qualiﬁcations for the professionals providing services to the tourist industry.
“Our tourism tax is an important element to deliver benefits for the city,” Councillor Colom. “It helps make it clear to residents that there are benefits to them from tourism to the city.”
Given the extensive ground that the panel covered, not all of of the tenets of the Barcelona 2020 strategy were outlined, but here are the last three…
8. COMMUNICATION AND WELCOME
WE HAVE A PLAN TO MAKE COMMUNICATION A KEY TOURISM-MANAGEMENT TOOL
Tourists coming to Barcelona do so largely because of the way we show them the city and its attractions. Having a good communication strategy is essential if we are to make tourism a sustainable and responsible activity that involves residents and visitors alike. We need to expand our narratives on destination Barcelona, making them more diverse and dynamic in order to open up the range of possibilities for visitors beyond the city’s crowd-pulling icons. We also need to coordinate the city’s tourist-communication tools, so that they respond to the goal of ensuring a sustainable destination. The plan aims to have an impact on the information tourists receive before their stay in the city and to strengthen exchange channels before, during and after their stay.
9. TAXES AND FUNDING
WE HAVE A PLAN FOR COMPENSATING THE IMPACT THAT TOURISM HAS
What does tourism cost Barcelona? What economic beneﬁts does it entail? The balance between costs and beneﬁts has to be calculated and analysed if we are to know what expense tourism represents out of the municipal coffers and what activities create more or less income and expenditure. The plan provides for designing a tourist-tax investment and funding plan, exploring other tax measures as management tools and taxing activities that cause more externalities and which affect daily life in the city: intense use of public space, property pressure, environmental impact, among other things. In short, this is about having more planning tools at our disposal that also ensure a fairer redistribution.
10. REGULATION AND PLANNING
WE HAVE A PLAN FOR THE REGULATIONS TO SAFEGUARD THE RIGHT TO THE CITY
The plan strengthens resources for inspecting and pursuing illegality, especially in the realm of accommodation, and provides for reviewing urban-planning tools to tackle the effects of tourist activities on the city, from metropolitan to neighbourhood scales. The last few years have seen the rise of completely new phenomena linked to the city’s tourists uses, which current bylaws do not cover. That is why they need to be changed and new ones established where needed, such as economic activities in spaces with greater volumes of visitors or unregulated offers of accommodation.