The naked tourist: revealing tensions in the Barcelona Model
Barcelona has undergone a dramatic tourism revolution, climbing rapidly to the peak of the
European destination league. But this success has brought new challenges, particularly in
terms of continued debates about how much tourism the city can stand.
In 2012 Barcelona welcomed 7.5 million tourists, who stayed a total of almost 16 million
nights. This compares with the 1.7 million tourists who visited Barcelona in 1990, staying 3.8
million night in total. In other words, the total number of tourists has increased by 4.4 times in
just over 20 years, and the number of overnights by 4.2 times. Relative to the population of
the city (1.62 million), there are now almost five tourists and ten tourist overnights per
inhabitant per year. However, most of the tourists are concentrated in the centre of the city,
which has a total population of around 370,000, giving a tourist density of 20 tourists a year to
every inhabitant in the centre of the city. For Amsterdam, the comparable figure for the
Centrum district would be 70 tourist arrivals for every inhabitant.
In spite of this pressure, attitudes to tourism in Barcelona have remained fairly positive over
the years. Concerned by growing criticism of the city’s policy of stimulating tourism growth,
the Muncipality began to undertake research on the attitudes of residents to tourism in 2005
(Richards, 2005). The research showed that residents were overwhelmingly convinced of the
economic and image benefits of tourism (over 90% agreeing), although there was less
unanimity about whether tourism should be allowed to grow in future. Most saw ‘cultural
tourism’ as a good thing, but were not happy with the growth of low cost, low quality tourism.
Interestingly, the fairly positive attitude of residents did not agree with the political climate of
the time, and the first report was quietly shelved. Even so, a second report was commissioned
the following year (Richards, 2006), which again showed similar positive results. Unable to
dismiss the results as a one-off, the Municipality then set about establishing a regular monitor
of citizens’ attitudes to tourism.
Over the years the monitor has continued to show widespread support for the economic
benefits of tourism. In 2012, for example, 92% of residents said that they thought tourism was
beneficial for the city, almost the same level as in 2005 (93%). The proportion agreeing that
tourism brings lots of money to the city grew quite substantially, from 78% in 2006 to 96% in
2012. The generally positive perceptions of tourism lead most residents to agree that the city
should continue to attract more tourists, and increase hotel capacity, although there are also
more in favour of distributing tourism more evenly across the city.
Tourism is beneficial for the city
Barcelona should continue to attract more
The city is reaching its limit to accommodate
The city is managing tourism well
Distribute tourism across districts of the city
Increase capacity of hotels
Reduce number of tourists
Attract more quality tourism
I live in a district with lots of tourists
One interesting feature of the research has been the division of opinion within the city itself. In
general, the higher social classes are more negative about tourism than the lower ones, and
those in the city centre are more negative than those on the periphery. Arguably this shows
that the anti-tourism sentiment is to some extent an intellectual debate, very visible in the
press, but less so on the street. There is also an interesting micro-geography of reactions to
tourism. Those on the periphery of the city (who are also in general poorer) would actually like
to see more tourism in their area, whereas in the centre of the city there is a big divide
between those whose jobs are related to tourism and other (generally wealthier) residents.
Real problems tend to arise at a fairly local level. For example the most recent public
demonstration of anti-tourism feeling took place in the beach area of Barceloneta, when a
group of tourists went on a three hour perambulation, including a visit to a local shop –
completely naked. Local residents took to the streets to complain and staged three days of
protests. This basically happened because it took place in a local residential area. If it had
happened on the beach itself, there probably would have been a more muted reaction. As it
was, the Mayor acted swiftly to close 35 tourist apartments in Barceloneta that were operating
illegally. He said that he hoped it was not too late to address the problems caused by a ‘low
cost’ model of tourism, and that the city would prefer to attract cultural tourists, families and
The policy reaction from the Municipality has been twofold. On the one hand they have
progressively tightened regulations. In fact it used to be perfectly legal to be scantily dressed
or even naked in public places, but now a municipal ordinance has introduced fines for
inappropriate dress and ‘uncivic’ behaviour. The city councillor for La Barceloneta, Mercè
Homs, said the municipality would adopt a policy of "zero tolerance". There has also been a
clampdown on illegal tourist accommodation, although the growth of websites such as Airbnb
has effectively rendered this ineffective. At the same time, the city has moved to try and
include the tourist as part of the local community. They now refer to visitors as ‘local citizens’,
implying that they have certain rights as well as certain obligations.
But a number of grass roots initiatives have arguably been more successful than the top-down
approach on the municipality. Monica Deegan (2010) describes how the residents of the Raval,
once a marginalised neighbourhood in the old city, now often feel overwhelmed by tourism.
But she also shows how local initiatives designed to promote the identity of place have helped
to stem the tide of helplessness.
But one of the most telling clues as to why residents of Barcelona may be so tolerant towards
tourists in spite of rising touristic pressure on the city is to be found in the high level of contact
that most residents have with tourists. Almost two thirds of residents indicated that they had
been in contact with tourists in 2013, and 77% said these contacts were positive. Residents are
also responsible for accommodating a large number of tourists themselves. Almost half of
those surveyed said they had been visited by friends or family during the past year, and had
been visited by an average of 4.6 people. In many ways, the residents of Barcelona have
become an extension of the tourist industry themselves – an effect that is probably
strengthened by the recent growth of Airbnb and Couchsurfing in the city.
The Barcelona case raises some key questions about the nature of tourism and its effects in
the contemporary network society. Tourism has become increasingly difficult to isolate as a
policy area in a world of increasing mobility, and established lobbies such as the hotel industry
have gradually lost their relevance. It will be interesting to see if the politicians have the
courage to take more holisitic approaches to tackling the situation.
Deegan, M. (2010). Consuming urban rhythms: Let’s Ravaljar. In Edensor, T. (ed) Geographies
of Rhythm: Nature, Place, Mobilities and Bodies. Ashgate. Pp 21-32.
Richards, G. (2005) Avaluació de les Actituds en relació al Turisme per part dels habitants de
Barcelona. Ajuntament de Barcelona, Direcció de Serveis de Turisme i Qualitat de Vida.