European cities protest tourists, politics get in the way

August is high tourist season in Europe but not all residents of the most-visited cities are pleased. Anti-tourist protests have taken place in several of them, one being planned in the Spanish Basque city of San Sebastian this weekend.

People sunbathe on Bogatell beach in Barcelona. Some local residents have protested, saying there are too many tourists.
People sunbathe on Bogatell beach in Barcelona. Some local residents have protested, saying there are too many tourists. AFP/Josep Lago

About 2,000 people marched through the streets of the historic Italian city of Venice last month to protest against the impact of mass tourism on rents and local businesses.

The city, whose population has fallen from 175,000 after World War II to 55,000 today, sees 20 million visitors a year, most of them coming off cruise ships.

“This is a developed-country phenomenon. It is due to an inability to manage groups in a sustainable way,” Taleb Rifai, of the UN’s World Tourism Organisation, told RFI.

The body says that one in 10 jobs around the world is tied to tourism, and that tourism has a positive impact on economies.

Spanish backlash

But not everybody sees it that way.

Spain had a record 75.6 million tourists last year. For a country coming out of recession and economic crisis, residents should welcome tourism.

Yet in Barcelona, the capital of the province of Catalonia, banners have popped up saying “We don’t want tourists in our buildings”, drawing attention to the impact of short-term apartment rental sites like AirBnB on the local housing market.

“Most of these are places where cruises are playing a big role,” says Rifai. “Cruises dump 2-3-4,000 people in a matter of a few hours in the centre of the city. These people are roaming around not contributing enough to the economy, because all of their services are provided on board the ship.”

He says cities can manage this by striking deals with cruise ships to provide vouchers to eat in local restaurants and revising docking agreements, to funnel more money to local residents.

Spanish backlash

But, of course, it’s never that simple. In Spain local politics also come into play.

Catalonia will hold an independence referendum on 1 October, and Arran, the youth wing of the CUP, a radical Catalan party pushing for independence, has claimed a major role in the recent anti-tourism campaign in Barcelona.

Members of Arran attacked a tourist bus, daubing it with graffitti, and vandalised city bicycles.

The group's spokesperson, Laura Flores, told the Guardian that the actions are “a
response to the violence we face every day. The street must be allowed
to speak, it’s the only place where we can fight.”

“The action of the CUP aims to destabilise the mayor of Barcelona, Ada Colau, because she has been very cautious about the question of independence and the referendum,” says Barbara Loyer, a professor at the University of Paris 8 and a specialist on Catalan and Basque nationalist movements.

Colau was elected on a programme of sustainable tourism and Loyer says that’s why the protests are aimed at tourism: “There is a problem of tourism but I think that in this case a little group of separatists are taking it as a pretext. Everybody is upset by this issue, so you can cause problems for all parties and divide people. It’s a really good way to divide your opponents.”

San Sebastian protest youth-led

Loyer says the main Basque independence party has distanced itself from a planned anti-tourist demonstration in San Sebastian this weekend, but a small group of youth activists are going ahead anyway, inspired by what happened in Barcelona.

The effects of mass tourism are real, however: rising rents due to an increase in short-term rentals and small businesses closing, replaced by souvenir shops.

Rifai agrees, but says it’s not enough to protest against tourism in general.

“It’s easy to say ‘stop the tourists’," he argues. "That’s an easy way out. And unfortunately some city administrators are following a populist attitude in trying to appease the immediate feeling about the people. This is a very short-sighted, short-term policy.”

Tourism, he says, brings a lot of benefits, economically, but also culturally and politically.

“It has so much value, so we’re not going to sacrifice all of this because we’re not able to manage a certain number of crowds," Rifai says. "That’s a very serious decision to take.”

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