It was just past 9 a.m. on a recent Wednesday in Barcelona, but Englishmen Dave North and Paul Cameron were already drinking beer at an outdoor café. Actually, they had never stopped. "We started yesterday, when we got here and just sort of pushed on through the night," said North, his bare chest showing the first flush of sunburn. "That's why we're here, after all."
They and a few hundred thousand others. Barcelona may be renowned for its superb collection of Modernist architecture, its cutting-edge cuisine, its Gothic center, and its world-class shopping but, thanks to a long, sandy coastline and budget airlines such as Easyjet, it has recently developed a reputation for "low-cost" tourism that focuses almost exclusively on booze and beach. Since the spring, residents in the famously cosmopolitan city tired of being awakened at 4 a.m. by the drunken shouts of a visiting bachelor party or startled by young women strolling through its streets in bikinis and flip-flops have begun fighting back.
In April, the municipal government launched a "sensitivity campaign" designed to remind visitors of the good behavior expected of them. Posters depicting stick figures dressed (barely) in bathing suits with a red line drawn over them went up on the city's kiosks and subway walls. Another, with the slogan "Everything fits here but not everything goes," is similarly graphic about urinating in the streets. And a region-wide ban on happy hours and two-for-one drinks is intended in part to cut down on the favorite pastime of the bachelor- and bachelorette-party set.
Ever since the 1992 Olympics and the massive urban improvement campaign that preceded it, Barcelona has consistently ranked among the most visited cities in Europe. In 2009, it received nearly 6.5 million overnight visitors, more than double the amount of just 10 years ago. And while many of those tourists came to climb the turrets of Gaudi's Sagrada Familia, and stroll the galleries of the Picasso Museum, the city has also felt the impact of no-frills airlines and budget tour operators that cater to the small but significant portion of European tourists who travel to get, well, wasted.
And that, says Mayor Jordi Hereu, is precisely the problem. "Barcelona is the antithesis of a theme park," says Hereu.. "This is a real, functioning city, with a very dense population. We embrace tourism, but we want it to be compatible with the city's quality of life."
Barcelona Adventure, which has been in business since 2000, organizes bachelor and bachelorette trips to the Catalan capital for about 60 people every weekend. The company's manager, David Coots, understands the motivation behind the new campaign. "It's true that our clients are drunk pretty much from the minute they get off the plane," he says. He's not sure, however, that a clean-up campaign will work. "They're trying to cut down on yobbish behavior, and improve the class of tourists they get," he says. "But you can't turn Barcelona into Monaco."
Maybe not. But Montse Cugat, a housewife who has lived for the past 40 years on a narrow street just off the Ramblas, the city's main boulevard, would like the city to try. "This used to be a quiet neighborhood," she says. "Now, if you go out in the morning, you can't breathe because of the stink of urine and vomit." Cugat still does her shopping at the city's famous market (and major tourist attraction), the Boquería. "But sometimes I can't even get across the street because there are so many tourists blocking the way."
It's with an eye to ensuring that the Ciutat Vella, or Old City, remains a real neighborhood that the municipal government has recently announced new measures to regulate the amount of stuffed bulls and Barça soccer team magnets that newspaper kiosks are allowed to sell tchotchkes aimed at lager louts as well as to control the number of hotels and souvenir shops in the area. "Other cities have solved this problem by basically emptying some neighborhoods of residents," says Mayor Hereu. "But in Barcelona we want to balance things. Residents don't need to buy postcards every day. They need to buy vegetables and pants for their kids. We can't let the logic of the free market destroy our city."
In August, renovations will begin on the eleven news kiosks that dot Las Ramblas. Those changes will include some tourist-friendly measures, like the addition of electronic information boards, but will also prevent many of them from devoting the majority of their space to "My Parents Went to Spain" t-shirts and the like.
Ramón Lamazares, president of the Association of Friends, Residents, and Merchants of Las Ramblas, says he welcomes the measure, especially because it will make way for more "quality" vendors like those selling authentic Catalan products. "There's something to be said for maintaining certain standards, and keeping the Ramblas beautiful," he explains. "Everyone residents and tourists wants that."
He is less sanguine, however, about another new proposal from the city: a €1 per night tourism tax that would be added to the hotel bill of every visitor. "Tourism is an important part of the economy here. Why would you want to put up a barrier to that?" Lamazares says. "And for one euro a night? That's more cosmetic than real."
Cosmetic until you add up the number of overnight stays: nearly 13 million in 2009. At city hall, where they are asking that Spain's central government take up the issue of the tax, the city council sees that money as a means to foster the kind of tourism the city wants to sponsor. "Tourism brings a lot of benefits, but it has costs as well," says Mayor Hereu. "Why shouldn't those who come share in those costs? This is really about establishing a strategy so that tourism here will be sustainable in the future."
Maeve Ellul and Charmaine Bellotti weren't sure how they felt about a tourism tax, but they welcomed the new sensitivity campaign. Seated at an outdoor café at the top of the Ramblas with their own bikinis covered discreetly with t-shirts and skirts, the two young women on vacation from Malta said they never saw people walking around their home city in bathing suits, despite its island location. "In Malta, people behave well," said Ellul. "Besides, who wants to look at someone's naked flesh when you're eating? That's disgusting."