Is COVID-19 the last chance to keep Barcelona’s culture alive?

By Amelia Smith 

We all know Barcelona as the vibrant city of Catalonia; famous for its street performers, rich culture and beautiful architecture. A city which receives over 30 million tourists a year, the rich tapestry of culture that was once lost in society has suddenly had a revival due to COVID-19. Ditch the tourists, support the locals, and here we are back in 1960’s Catalonia. 

On a usual day, you expect to see thousands of selfie thirsty tourists pile into Barcelona’s hotspots. But, on the return to the great city after lockdown, Antoni Gaudi’s Sagrada Familia and the infamous Plaça de Catalunyahad been replaced by hungry pigeons and the sound of silence. One of the most popular destinations in Europe, now a ghost town. Infamous for its attractive climate, stunning seaside and lively nightlife, there is no denying the fascination. 

My experience living in the beauteous city of Barcelona

Studying in the city, I discovered the beauties of the Spanish (Catalonian better say) culture. But what soon became visible was the loss of culture this city has experienced due to tourism

Renowned monuments and beaches transformed into tourist theme parks suffocated by crowds making it impossible to relax. Street vendors bombard the city with cheap and not-so-cheerful items until forced to stop by heavy-armed police. The infamous street La Rambla, recognised as the majestic walk linking the city and the beach, now a living nightmare for residents who consciously avoid it at all costs. If it is not slow walkers that get you, then pickpocketers or enticing overpriced restaurants will.

The city took a toll on March the 14th after the Spanish government announced a national lockdown, ordering over 40 million residents to stay inside for the foreseeable future. With Spain having a proportionately high ageing population, fear spread through the country and compliance to the rules was strong. Faced with strict measures, the virus struck through the country, devastating the nation and claiming over 40,000 lives.

Amid all the suffering, the city stayed strong, and an unexpected light appeared at the end of the tunnel.

A city reformed

Returning to Barcelona after a prolonged absence, I was shocked to see the city had come back alive again after 3 months of one of the strictest lockdowns in Europe. The absence of people allowed for the admiration of buildings and streets leaving me adoring the city once again. Catalan and Spanish dominated the city walls, and with it, the dawn of a new era as Barcelona returned to its culture.

The medieval alleyways of Gothic Quarter were no longer a London dungeon maze, afraid of when someone will pop out at each corner before running away with your valuables. Barcelona being notorious as it is for its crafty pickpocketers, four phones down and I wasn’t rushing to form any relationship with my new one; however, this time the city felt safer than ever, with no tourists to mug, the criminals had vacated the city. Finally the city was great again.

Before lockdown, a quick late-night trip for smokers would end in dodging thrown eggs, showering in buckets of freezing cold water (sometimes with bleach) and even heaters thrown from balconies. But, with the quieter streets and the absence of partygoers, residents were finally free to return to outdoor socialising. Without Brits abroad dominating the landscape and the drowning sound of football chants and wolf-whistling, locals were finally getting their city back.

The peaceful nights and favourable space on Barcelona did not come without consequences. Without the promise of foreign customers, many bars and restaurants were forced to shut and will never reopen. The tourism sector accounts for almost a quarter of economic activity and generates nearly 10% of the city’s employment.

Is tourism the problem?

Staggering around the city, you are bound to bump into posters, signs and graffiti marked ‘TOURISTS GO HOME’. Even in Catalan, it is pretty clear residents and locals are fed up of tourists overrunning their home.

In the past few years, city authorities have clamped down on thousands of Airbnbs which occupy more than twenty thousand of the city’s apartments, charging extortionate prices for weekend trips for tourists. This is driving up the cost of living and is leaving residents with no hope of owning an apartment of their own.

A common Spanish term ‘turismofobia’, (tourismphobia) is now painted across the media as Spanish residents would rather welcome refugees and refuse tourists. Ada Colau, the Mayor of Barcelona is known for her left-wing policies and anti-tourism movements. When elected in 2015 as the first female mayor, she promised limitation of visitors by new vacation taxes and lobbying against new hotels. A tourist tax was introduced in 2012 costing up to 2.5 euro a night; however, there is still controversy over where this wealth is distributed. 

So what do residents think?

Not all tourism is damaging the city, the younger generation take a different stance on the impact of tourists.

Talking to a resident and student Laura Rodriguez, she spoke of the importance of tourism to the economy: “the reality is that Barcelona’s residents do need tourists. Currently, walking through the city means half of the hotels and restaurants closed due to the Coronavirus pandemic and its catastrophic consequences”. Bearing in mind, tourist spending accounts for nearly a fifth of city revenue, so there is no denying that the city needs their unwelcome visitors.

Are we the problem? 

Cities losing their identity is no anomaly, in a rapidly growing globalised world, it is becoming the new norm. Individual characteristics that make up a country’s identity such as art, music and heritage are slipping away heavily due to mass tourism, globalisation and ignorance. Popular European cities like Paris, Madrid and Venice are all suffering from the same human infection. A global pandemic could be just what the world needed to regain its culture and remember what made them so interesting to the tourists in the first place.

Socialising in the outdoor world and feeling safe, ditching English and speaking in Spanish and Catalan, are all elements of Spanish culture that have been revived, enriched, and loved. Let’s recognise how our actions as tourists impact other cultures. The city has laid silently and happily during coronavirus, and it is a culture that should be here to stay. 

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