“Is Barcelona being spoilt by tourists?” This is a question that many Barcelona locals have been asking for some time. In fact, some minds were made up long ago.
It’s been two years since BBC’s Fast-Track came through to gauge the balance of opinion on tourism and everyday life in and around Barcelona’s “Old Town” and other visitor hotspots. Since then, there is perceptibly less grumbling about what, how and why tourism detracts from the city, which says something about public awareness of the economic benefits tourism brings to the city–no one in Spain right now wants to knock a trade that continues to grow and provide jobs.
But the issues surrounding the negative impacts of tourism don’t go away. Do tourism activities and tourist paraphernalia now dominate sense of place in Barcelona’s “historical centre”?
Ensuring residents enjoy liveable places—a liveable city—can often go hand-in-hand with better places to visit. So how can the remaining local charm and local life—those sources of increasing visitor interest (as well as distinct market advantage)—be sustained and nourished so that, further down the line, Barcelona can continue to reap the benefits of visitor arrivals and spend?
These are the issues that I hope will be thoroughly explored at RTD7. I’m also really looking forward to hearing the likes of destination manager and marketers, Pere Duran and Mario Rubert speak on these issues, as well as the very observant human geographer, Jose Antonio Donaire.
Can the RTD7 programme–and the ensuing Declaration–help chart a more sustainable course for a city that continues to prosper from tourism?
“The land itself, of course, has no desires as to how it should be represented. It is indifferent to its pictures and picturers. But maps organise information about a landscape in a profoundly influential way.” (Robert Macfarlane, in The Wild Places)
It struck me that guide books, canned tours and signed tourist itineraries could be considered similarly. Echoing Robert MacFarlane’s words, they “carry out a triage of [a place, not destination's] aspects, selecting and ranking those aspects in an order of importance, and so they create forceful biases in the ways a [place, not destination] is perceived and treated”.
If you love human diversity, Barcelona ain’t a bad place to be, particularly as much of that diversity can be spanned in an evening’s walk, slipping through neighbourhoods of various affluence, textures, smells, noise and colour. But this is enabled by apartment-living and jeek-by-jowl population density. Here, a house with a garden arouses curiousity. And you occasionally see where a long-term resident has acheived an abundance of mature greenery in a balcony-sized biosphere. Otherwise, the trees that line the neighbourhood streets and arterial avenues are a mere distraction; an ambience creator shot through by the metal menace, noise and fumes of a vast colony of motorists that thread in, out and around this city incessantly, daily. Which is why, when I walk up into the very hills we could blame for Barcelona’s urban intensity, I so clearly recognise Robert MacFarlane’s sentiment, “the relief of relief” (in The Wild Places).
McCarthy’s Bar keeps revealing on-the-trail observations that chime with my own concerns about how some places seem to be losing the fight to maintain their character and distinctiveness in the face of tourism and “inward investment”. His book was a “Number One Bestseller” so I may be among many others with similar concerns:
“Now the Irish economy is so driven by tourism, will every special little place end up like this, as they see what’s to be earned by marketing their idiosyncrasies, leaping aboard the Celtic Tiger, and getting the builders in? A successful tourism industry can quickly turn itself into a parody of itself.”
Clearly this is pre-”crisis” (the book is copyrighted 2000), but the same sentiments can be applied to other times and places. Just think about the comments you have perhaps heard in relation to the charm of Havana, Cuban people, other places in Cuba, and what lies in store for them once the country “opens up”.
So why is it that when the money blows through some places–investment (chicken or egg?) or tourist cash (egg or chicken?) that it seems to get spent on making them poorer in terms of charm and interesting detail? Is there some kind of underlying mechanism (“globalisation”?) that makes this inevitable? How can a place–i.e. the people of that place–conserve its charm and distinctiveness without “selling out” to moneyed “others” and the tourism entourage? How should destination managers and promoters best communicate the said idiosyncracies of the place their livelihoods are set to be based on, if at all? Perhaps, in fact, these little sources of charm and distinctiveness should be left to personal discovery and real-world encounters, with communication being equally diffuse thereafter, via post-trip musings via the digital ether and maybe even… in books.
In Titanic Belfast – it didn’t rock my boat travel writer Catherine Mack contrasts beautiful, “real
breathing spaces [that] are part of our living heritage”, with a designed (or contrived) visitor attraction built on tragedy and destination marketing thought:
Reading her piece had me balancing the following:
- investment in the places to date
- investment needed to maintain the differing attractions (thereby benefiting the communities most closely involved)
- the cost to the visitor of visiting (“entrance fee”)
- enjoyment and illumination
- underlying motives–which do we really want to be sustained three or four generations from now?
It’s a close-to-the-heart piece, so perhaps the most pertinent question is… Which of the places she throws into contrast are most likely to fill locals–and maybe even visitors–with pride?
In the country, food is a continuous preoccupation, not simply a pause to refuel. Country people know the sweat that goes into an ear of corn, a pail of milk, a churn of butter, bread warm from the oven, and the eggs and bacon that sizzle in the breakfast frying pan. Food is hard-earned and requires the proper degree of respect.
This quote from Bryce Courtenay’s The Power of One immediately struck a chord, reminding me that the enjoyment of “country food” is intensified considerably when you appreciate how hard-earned it is, how it is inextricably linked to the people and place that have provided it, and how it can play with each and every one of your senses in powerfully evocative ways.