The image of children playing under palm trees in Barcelona’s Plaza Real takes Gloria Gómez back to her childhood in the 1980s, before the hordes of tourists crowded into this emblematic spot in Barcelona.
“It’s nice to see it but at the same time it’s very sad,” said Gomez, 53, a janitor in a building in this square in the old town, a job she inherited from her mother.
The pandemic has dealt a heavy blow to tourism-dependent countries like Spain and to cities like Barcelona, one of the most popular in Europe. And now that it is trying to attract visitors again, it is also discussing the need to change its economic model to tackle a problem that has been going on for a long time, namely mass tourism.
“There is an absolute change in strategy,” said Marian Muro, director of Turisme de Barcelona, a public-private consortium, explaining the change in the overall promotion of the city.
“Quality is more important than quantity” and greater respect from visitors for Barcelona’s people are some of the factors that explain the city’s more segmented approach, she said.
In search of new tourism, the city intends to promote its local gastronomy and the attractiveness as a technological pole offered by its startups, while offering tourism agents training to meet the needs of Chinese visitors with a view to attracting high-consumption tourists from that country, as well as from Southeast Asia and the United States.
It is also imposing health requirements on tourism companies that receive a sustainable commitment label from the United Nations as a guarantee against the pandemic and has signed an agreement with Moscow to promote long weekend trips focused on culture and shopping.
These are new tactics for a city of 1.6 million people that last year received an estimated 30 million visitors, including travellers who only came for one day and some 14 million who stayed at least overnight.
Before the pandemic, amidst anger over rising housing prices and concern that tourism was creating exclusionary zones for residents, the city council tried measures such as restricting the opening of new hotels, which drew criticism from the private sector.
Tourism generally accounts for more than 12% of Spain’s GDP, which according to the United Nations was the second most visited country in the world in 2018 after France.
But international arrivals fell by 98% year-on-year in June and hopes of a rebound in July, after the nationwide ban was lifted, were dashed by quarantines and recommendations not to travel issued by many countries due to increased infections in several areas of the country, including Barcelona.
Less than a third of Barcelona’s hotels have opened and in July, only 20% of them posted a full sign. The Catalan government forecasts losses in the tourism sector of at least 15 billion euros in the region. The direct expenditure of tourists reached around 8.8 billion euros in Barcelona in 2018, according to the city council.
“The whole sector will have to adapt and learn to be more resilient because experts tell us there will probably be more pandemics,” said Francesc Romagosa, head of research at the School of Tourism at the Autonomous University of Barcelona (UAB), noting that it is a “good time” to diversify the urban tourism model.
Some want a more radical change.
Maria Garcia, spokesperson for the environmental organisation Ecologistes en Acció, advocates a transformation towards a smaller-scale, climate-friendly tourism, away from what she called the “bursting of the bubble” of a sector based on hypermobility, precarious jobs and with an enormous urban impact.
of a tourism based on the train, as well as the regulation of housing prices and the conversion of tourist shops into local shops.
Ramón González, leader of the CCOO union in Catalonia, said that greater economic weight should be given to the manufacturing industry, warning that tourism might not recover until 2022.
The impact of the new virus is evident in Barcelona’s once bustling Gothic Quarter, where dozens of souvenir shops have closed and hotels have drawn their blinds.
“We’ve gone from one extreme to the other,” said Gomez in front of the Plaza Real, missing even the nightly bustle he used to hate: “It’s an ugly silence.