• Hard lessons from Spain

    Ben D. Kritz

    Ben D. Kritz

    BARCELONA has had quite enough of your tourist behavior, thank you very much.

    The iconic Spanish city has relied on tourism for years for a significant part of its revenue, and it is one of the most valuable tourism markets in all of Spain, an economy that can use all the help it can get. Yet in the past couple of years anger has been growing among Barcelona residents who are increasingly feeling they are “losing their city to tourists,” a backlash that resulted last month in the issuance of a moratorium on new tourist accommodation licenses for at least a year.

    The order by leftist mayor Ada Colau, an anti-eviction and anti-inequality whose election back in May was a strong signal of the prevailing public sentiment, was intended, she said, to give the government time to develop a sustainable long-term tourism plan.

    The ban covers not only hotels, but apartments, hostels, and other private accommodations as well, a sector that has grown at an explosive pace, thanks to Airbnb and similar property rental models.

    Barcelona, which has a population of about 1.6 million, averages 27 million tourist visitors per year. Many of those—up to 30,000 per day, according to some estimates—arrive in crowds of 2,000 or more on board cruise ships, whose traffic has increased over the past decade. Local residents and businesses are getting squeezed out, and one of the prime culprits is Airbnb.

    Originally seen as a boon to areas that did not benefit as much from tourism and a worthwhile income opportunity for individual homeowners, it has largely been hijacked by property developers and hotel operators, who have been snatching up private real estate in an “if you can’t beat them, join them” kind of approach to dealing with the competition. The most obvious issue is that this has inflated property prices; the rather predictable tourism life cycle means that this will inevitably be a serious economic problem at some point in the future.

    The not-so-obvious problem, but the one that is really fueling public anger, is the degradation of quality of life in the city for ‘ordinary’ residents who—again, thanks to Airbnb and its ilk—have suddenly found themselves sharing their neighborhoods with people who don’t have to get up for work in the morning.

    The reaction has not yet turned violent—although according to an article in Vice last month, part of the unofficial rationale for the licensing moratorium was to “do something before a tourist gets thrown off somebody’s balcony”—but it has been growing increasingly hostile.

    Obviously there are a lot of lessons for the Philippines in the Barcelona experience. To the credit of the Department of Tourism, those lessons have not been lost on some of the more-intellectually minded in the agency, but understanding a problem and actually being able to do something about it are two completely different kinds of challenges.

    Like Barcelona, the Philippines has no choice but to cultivate a tourism industry, and must try to maintain the same balance between maximizing the economic potential and conserving the cultural and environmental attributes. Barcelona blew it, and probably hastened its tourism industry’s decline; the same process is evidently well underway in places like Boracay here.

    The development of tourism infrastructure could not keep pace with Barcelona’s tourism growth, which encouraged the rapid spread of improvised solutions like Airbnb.

    Whether or not the DoT’s perennially optimistic tourist arrival goals are appropriate for the country’s current handling capacity is debatable; many suspect they are not. Developing an appropriate tourism policy, however, is probably impossible under a government system like this one, because an effective policy has to consider the sector’s life cycle, which could last a couple of decades.



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    1. Tricycle Driver on

      The Philippines doesn’t need tourists to destroy its beauty and economic potential. The Filipinos are willing and able to do those by their lonesome selves.

    2. Amnata Pundit on

      You are right, intellectuals or deep thinkers are what’s needed to plan our national tourism program. Tourism is basically the selling and showcasing of a culture, but what do government officials in charge to tourism know about Filipino culture beyond how to spell the words?

    3. Carl Cid Inting on

      Boracay is way more overexploited and environmentally despoiled than anywhere in Barcelona.