A Tourist in an Over-Touristed City

We thought Barcelona was crowded. Landing there, after the quiet of Bali and the fully-inside life of Singapore… Barcelona freaked us out a little bit. We landed, jet-lagged and frazzled, on a Thursday morning, dropped our stuff at our hotel, walked over to Las Ramblas, and found our way to the Boqueria.

So. Many. People. These were the biggest crowds we had encountered in over two years. Hundreds of people walking around, taking photos of the vendors, maskless… the Covid claustrophobia was real.

To us, this is crowded

A bit of background: Barcelona is one of the top destinations in Europe, and before the pandemic was one of the centers of an emotional debate about overtourism. 32 million people per year descended on the city, half of them day-trippers from cruises, who mostly walked up Las Ramblas, hit the Boqueria… just like us.

The advent of cheap inter-Europe flights intensified things, as weekend bachelor/bachelorette parties and bro-fests also became a thing. Add in the home price effects of turning thousands of neighborhood apartments into Airbnbs and you’ve got a perfect storm. So, we showed up at (once again) a very interesting time.

So, actually, it wasn’t that crowded, relative to a few years ago. There were a few cruise ships in port, but it was nowhere near full. The pathways of the Gothic quarter were dotted with people, but we never had to push our way through the crowds. A few street performers set up here and there. Again, it felt crowded to us, but it’s clearly not at full capacity yet.

Still… as Thursday became Friday night, things picked up quite a bit. We ran into a couple of bachelorette parties, and one or two packs of Brit bros looking to get their drunk on. By July, I’ll bet the place is a mess again on weekends.

We live in a tourist magnet of a city, and like everyone we have a like/dislike relationship with the industry. I love being asked for directions or recommendations from random visitors – it gives me a chance to be friendly, an ambassador for my city, a way to connect with people from around the world and maybe be a part of a story (“I asked a guy for directions in San Francisco and he sent me to the most amazing taco shop…”). But I really despise living close to dedicated Airbnb hotel apartments. Rent your place out while you’re gone, sure, but… cities are for people who live there. Blowing up real estate values because you can triple your rent with short-termers is a real problem all over the world, from Barcelona to Lake Tahoe.

Note: I’m obviously a hypocrite here, as I’m writing this from an Airbnb vacation rental in rural northern Spain. I kinda justify it by noting that we’re trying to stay in hotels or legal vacation rentals while in cities – the countryside is a bit of a different beast. Not perfect, but we’re trying.

But… every tourist means a dollar spent in town, which means a job, a livelihood, food on the table. We’ve gotten a taste of what happens when tourism just disappears, and it’s not pretty. It’s also kind of snotty to say “all of you sheep gotta go away.” Somehow, maybe, there’s a middle ground.

My take: Millions of people go to Barcelona every year, but… do they all need to go there? What about the rest of the country? Spain is huge, with a giant wide coastline. There are tons of cities and villages in astounding locations… how could some of Barcelona’s tourist traffic be spread around a bit, perhaps for a wider benefit? I don’t know. I do know we’ve had a ball wandering through northern Spain, with nearly nary a tourist in sight. Stay tuned for what that’s like; it’s really special.

3 thoughts on “A Tourist in an Over-Touristed City

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