Captivating Cities: Barcelona

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Barcelona – the capital of Catalonia and one of the most visited cities in the world. With a population of 1.6 million, it is the largest city on the Mediterranean and the second largest in Spain. Despite the current dark clouds of a constitutional crisis surrounding this city, Barcelona continues to remain a beacon of Catalonian nationalism and pride. From the egalitarian, perfectionist l’Eixample District to the chaotic maze of the Gothic Quarter, Barcelona is a city of architectural contrasts due to its long and distinct history and the ambitious dreams of Art-Nouveau architects. Offering a blend of Modernisme, Catalan Gothic and Art-Nouveau, it is understandable why nearly 10 million overnight international tourists visit Barcelona every year.

History of Barcelona

To fully appreciate the grandeur of Barcelona, it is important to acknowledge the city’s long and unique history. The origins of Barcelona remain uncertain, with claims that the city was founded in the third century BC by the Carthaginian general of Hamilcar Barca. It is not until 15 BC that the city was officially established as a Roman military camp. Although this was over 2000 years ago, the influence of the Romans can still be felt, with the ruins of Roman walls and temples tightly tucked between 19th century apartment blocks; some fragments of the Roman walls even incorporated into Barcelona’s cathedral. Since the collapse of the Roman Empire, Barcelona has been ruled by the Christian Visigoths (who built many of Barcelona’s Cathedrals), Muslim Moorish and finally gaining independence only to join a political union with the Crown of Aragon in 1162. Under this union, Barcelona thrived as a port connecting the Iberian peninsula to the rest of the Mediterranean, especially to Naples and Athens. However, the unification of Spain and the discovery of the New World has led to the decline of Barcelona as a port.

Catalonia began to industrialise during the mid 19th century, resulting in a construction boom, such as l’Eixample or “Expansion” district. It was designed by the urban planner Cerda, who wanted this new district to have an equal distribution of services and resources – thus the repeating block-like pattern of the district. It is also during this period that many of Barcelona’s most iconic buildings were being built, The Sagrada Familia began construction in 1882, Casa Batlló was decorated in 1877. The construction boom continued into the 20th century with Park Güell being completed in 1914 and the Palace of Catalan Music opened in 1908. But this did not last. During the Spanish Civil War, the Catalonian government was on the losing side with the Republicans, therefore, when General Franco became dictator of Spain in 1939, he punished the Catalonians by banning their language and culture. This period saw a decline of Barcelona, where it saw a rapid increase of immigrants from poorer, not yet industrialised regions of Spain, whilst investment was absorbed by the capital, Madrid. It was not until the 1992 Barcelona Olympics that the city saw a resurgence in investment and global interest, with the excessive marketing of the unique history and culture of Barcelona, as well as the construction of artificial Barceloneta Beaches, it set the foundations of Barcelona’s tourist-driven economy.

The Barcelonan Identity

Barcelona is undeniably the jewel in Catalonia’s crown, historically being the centre of Catalan culture and at the crossroads of Northern and Southern Europe. And it is their distinct history and culture that has been fueling the recent surge in Catalan regionalism. Just the utterance of the word Barcelona evokes images of vivid Art-Nouveau buildings organically embellished with radiant mosaics that are arranged into a chaotic symphony of colour and ornamentation. The ancient alleys and streets of the Gothic Quarter harbour the aroma of dishes being prepared at cornerside restaurants, mixed with the refreshing breeze of the sea. On the wide, leafy Boulevards of l’Eixample, tourists flock from one Gaudí masterpiece to another, navigating past outdoor cafes and tourist stands. And all with the great lapis Mediterranean which overlooks the city, bringing both tourists and trade. And it is this trade that gave Barcelona a history of multiculturalism; even now, the city is distinctively diverse, with only 59% of residents originating from Catalonia.

Dark side of Mass Tourism

Barcelona, although economically benefitting greatly from tourism, with this contributing 17% to the city’s economy and 1 in 10 residents working in a tourist-related job, the city has since “decayed” from the impacts of mass tourism. The enormous number of tourists carrying a large amount of cash has attracted thieves and pickpockets to the city, increasing the crime rates as well as making the city centre more unattractive and dangerous for the locals. Second homes bought by tourists and illegal flats and hotels in the city centre has led to a soar in house prices, with some areas seeing a 200% increase in prices in the period of 10 years, forcing lower income residents to move out of the city centre, whilst empty second homes pollute the housing market. In addition to this, the prestige of certain parts of the city has been tarnished by the heavy presence of tourists causing large crowds congesting pedestrian walkways and littering spoiling the beauty of the city. Many residents fear that tourism is damaging Barcelona’s international image and will discourage future investment.

Furthermore, the economic crisis of 2008 and the following collapse in manufacturing industry has led to rapid de-industrialisation of Barcelona. This has resulted in an over-reliance on the service industry which has allowed for the exploitation of tourism by firms within Barcelona. This has only worsened the effects of mass tourism as well as the explosion in poorly-paid jobs with abysmal working conditions. What’s more, hotel chain executives also wield a large amount of power and influence over Catalan politicians to serve in the interest of profits for firms over the well being of the people. This has led many to accuse Barcelona of being designed for tourists and being turned in to a “theme park”.

Tackling Tourism

Recently, local officials, in light of dissatisfaction over the city “decaying” due to mass tourism, has made efforts to curb the effects of the large visitor numbers in Barcelona. For example, in the city’s main market, St. Josep La Boqueria, large groups of tourists are banned during certain times of the day on Fridays and Saturdays to give the locals an opportunity to do their weekly shopping. Furthermore, the local government has placed greater restrictions on the construction of new hotels to ease the stress on the housing market and segway tours being banned to reduce pedestrian congestion. Education programmes have also been launched to encourage good behaviour from tourists, for example: “Your holiday, our everyday” initiative has been used to encourage tourists to respect the everyday lives of the locals. Although these changes have been welcomed by many locals, some fear that these actions by the local government are sending the wrong message to tourists, that they are not welcome in Barcelona.

The Future

2017 has been a difficult year for Barcelona with barbaric terror attacks and the civil unrest of the Catalonian successionist movement, this paired with the long-lasting economic effects of the 2008 financial crisis and the decay of the city due to mass tourism – the future does seem bleak. However, Barcelona still has one of the highest employment figures in Spain and a GDP per capita that is 16% above the EU average, as well as being crowned as one of the most livable and innovative cities in the world. And, judging by Barcelona’s past, these issues only would appear footnotes in a long and triumphant legacy.