Chaos Hits Barcelona’s Tourist Industry

It’s not just the weather that’s heating up in Spain’s second city.

By Don Quijones, Spain, UK, & Mexico, editor at WOLF STREET.

It’s finally happened. After years of surging public opposition to unrestrained growth of the city’s tourist industry, Barcelona has witnessed a rash of coordinated attacks against tourist targets in the last week. It all began last Friday when a gang of four masked men slashed the tires of an open-top bus filled with holidaymakers and sprayed the windscreen with the slogan “Tourism kills neighborhoods.”

Responsibility for the ambush was claimed by Arran, the youth wing of the radical separatist CUP (Popular Unity Candidacy) party, which was also behind a video posted this week of members vandalizing tourist bicycles. In recent months at least seven hotels have been vandalized by protesters in Barcelona. And graffiti telling tourists to go home has become a ubiquitous part of the urban landscape.

The attacks have fueled concerns among the city’s business community that the city’s image as a major tourism destination could soon suffer. Most local citizens in Barcelona, while wary of supporting Arran’s extreme methods, are more sympathetic to some of the group’s misgivings about mass tourism. In June, respondents to the Council’s annual public opinion barometer identified tourism as the biggest problem the city faces: worse than poverty, crime, and even unemployment and general work conditions, which have topped the ranking every year since 2009.

Tourism may provide buckets of money to the city’s coffers — over €12 billion a year at last count. At the regional level it represents 12% of Catalonia’s GDP and generates 13.8% of its jobs, although many of them are of the casual, low-paid variety. But mass tourism also brings with it a toxic mix of externalities, including sky-high prices and rents, overcrowding, noise, overstretched public services and infrastructure, the erosion of the city’s distinctive character, and the gradual formation of a mono-dimensional economy [Is Barcelona’s Crazy Tourist Boom Too Much of a Good Thing?].

The challenge for Barcelona’s city authorities in the months ahead will be to find a way to soften the impact of some of these negative externalities without completely killing the goose that lays the golden eggs, while also trying to contain the spread of anti-tourist vandalism, which has already sparked copycat acts in Palma de Mallorca, Valencia, and San Sebastian.

But before it does that, the city must deal with an even more imminent threat to its tourist industry: striking security guards at the city’s airport. Thousands of tourists and business passengers have had to wait for over two hours in line (and one and a half hours for the fast-track lane) for security checks this week. And the strike hadn’t even officially begun yet, though many suspect that a covert “go-slow” strike has been in effect.

The real strike began on Friday when workers, who manage queues, monitor scanners, check bags and frisk travelers, began taking one-hour stoppages at four different times of day: from 5.30-6.30 AM, 10.30-11.30 AM, 4.30-5.30 PM, and 6.30-7.30 PM.

If the dispute isn’t resolved by mid-August, the union has threatened to call an indefinite strike, which could bring Spain’s second largest airport to a shuddering standstill at one of its busiest times of year.

At the heart of the dispute are the conditions under which the 350-strong staff of the firm in charge of security, Madrid-based Grupo Eulen, must work, due largely to an acute lack of staff reinforcements. “As there is no more staff, employees are being asked to stay for extra hours, and can do days of up to 16 hours,” said Alberto Cortado, from the UGT union. The staff are also calling for relief so that they can visit the bathroom and take breaks. Lack of personnel, union insiders say, is leading to heightened stress, which is far from ideal for a job where concentration is so vital.

The workers are also protesting worsening pay conditions. According to El País, eight years ago, when another firm, Prosegur, was in charge of private security at the airport, the net salary was €1,300 (including bonuses). When Spain’s recently privatized airports, operator AENA gave the contract for private security to Eulen last year, the company immediately slashed the salary for established personnel to €1,100. For new hires, it was even worse: they get paid just €900 a month, not nearly enough to make ends meet.

The striking workers have requested negotiations with the management of Eulen and AENA. Talks began between the three parties on Friday morning. AENA has threatened to fine Eulen €300,000 for failing to meet its service requirements. For its part Eulen has shown little interest in meeting the workers’ demands, fueling rumors in Catalonia, particularly among the more conspiracy-minded, that something more sinister may be afoot.

Such notions are not completely beyond reason. After all, Eulen is in charge of private security at over 30 airports across Spain, yet Barcelona’s El Prat is the only airport experiencing industrial action involving its workers this summer. What’s more, the company has extremely close ties with the governing Popular Party (PP): Eulen’s biggest shareholders include the brothers of Spain’s former Minister of Defence, Jaime Mayor Oreja, and it’s even been accused of paying the party illegal kickbacks.

The PP has repeatedly threatened to punish Catalonia financially for its separatist aspirations. Given the strategic and financial importance of Catalonia’s economy, any attempt to make good on that threat is likely to backfire horribly for both Madrid and Catalonia, but that’s not to say the government won’t try.

The longer this strike goes on, the more harm it will do, not only to Eulen’s reputation, but also to the image of Barcelona as a global tourism destination and business hub. Already over a thousand people have missed their flights as a direct result of the strike, and they’re leaving the city with the worst possible impression. That number could soar if a solution is not found in the coming days. By Don Quijones.

In Barcelona, the median home price has soared 22% over the past 12 months. In the city’s old town, which is ground zero for the tourist industry, the median price has skyrocketed 35%. “You could sell ten flats in a day” to Chinese on real estate excursions, explains the president of the Spanish unit of Coldwell Banker. Read…  Fueled by Global Investors, Home Prices Go Nuts in Barcelona

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  37 comments for “Chaos Hits Barcelona’s Tourist Industry

  1. raxadian says:

    And that’s not even the main problem. Shen a tourist city grows out of control like Barcelona has been doing, when prices just keep raising and the place gets so overcrowed with tourists and things keep happening to give tourists a bad expensive, a big tourist city starts to stop being one. Europe has many other cities tourists can visit, so tourism starts to move to those other places.

    Something that could have been avoided if things had been regulated.

    They are killing the golden goose to pull out the eggs, aren’t they?

    • alex in san jose says:

      As a part-time busker, I’ve known for several years that Barcelona has been enacting draconian measures against buskers and well, any sort of spontaneous art or culture that’s not thoroughly vetted, licensed, etc.

      That should give a general idea of the atmosphere. I was through there in the mid-90s and all the little 5-foot-tall Spanish cops with pistols on their sides in the airport was kind of funny too. Like being surrounded by armed shrubs.

      • Cynic says:

        Armed shrubs with big moustachios!

        I regret the old bank clerks, smoking like chimneys and doing absolutely f-all.

      • robt says:

        That sounds like Toronto – the buskers in the subway have to be approved and licensed by bureaucrats, the city tried to manage a small number of hot dog stands (that became approved-ethnic-food stands) that all went bankrupt when their assigned locations proved inappropriate and the cost of the food wagons soared 500 percent due to new regulation standards. The unregulated food wagons, however, are still doing just fine, as they alway have.
        Also, increasing numbers of police seem to be uniformed in outfits that are too big for them, with hats that sit on their heads only because their ears stop the hats from completely covering their eyes, and little girls with big guns: these officers are admittedly quite adorable.

  2. Otto Maddox says:

    I’d say that this problem is already being regulated without the government. Besides, how do we know that regulators would enact policies that won’t make things worse? It’s folly to assume that regulation is going to be anything close to perfect.

  3. chip javert says:

    Why doesn’t Barcelona force the various classes of vendors that are causing the most damage (public transport, tour busses, hotels?) to significantly increase prices by increasing license fees & taxes (make taxes refundable for local residents)?

    Or, like Singapore, charge variable tolls for specific classes of vehicle license-plates (tour vehicles) to relieve congestion on specific streets (residents license-plates pay no fees)…

    • JR says:

      Because Air BnB, Russkies, and gaming. Keep in mind that the world is a game, and playing the game is part of life. Google Kyle Bass’s twit about breaking China in Madrid: Special Report: How China’s biggest bank became ensnared in a sprawling money laundering probe (Reuters). Quite the game going on WW.

  4. Slyns says:

    The worst problem for Catalonia isn’t tourism, it’s real estate speculation and unregulated hotel operation (airbnb style short term rentals).

    If they can pass strict taxes on foreign property purchases, taxes on vacant properties, and then ban airbnb. They would eliminate a lot of the problems that are angering their citizens without damaging their economy.

    Lack of affordable housing for locals (getting pushed out of neighborhoods where they work so they could accommodate tourists or the wealthy – typically non-catalonian’s) is really what bothered the locals I talked to in the past year.

    Airbnb is a leach on the populace that benefits the few land barons. In spain in particular, crime orgs have set up shop to rent apartments and then illegally sublet them out on airbnb making it difficult for the true owner to put a stop to it.

    • Hiho says:

      I have lived my entire life in barcelona and I do agree with you. The worst part of the problem is that rents and prices have soared beyond our means, and by our I mean we the local people.

      Average salary in spain is around 1000 euros per month (net). Average rents in barcelona city right now can be anywhere between 1000 and 3000. Do the math. On top of that, this problem has extended far beyond the city and now affects the whole metropolitan area.

      Having said that, real estate soaring prices is by no means the only problem derived from mass tourism. Most of this tourism is not high-end, family based, but rather a bunch of drunk youngsters attracted by the beach, lax regulation and comparetivaly low prices. They pee in the streets, drink like no tomorrow, vandalize the streets, vomite everywhere and occasionally kill themselves jumping to swimming pools from a balcony.

      The best solution to this problem could be a high tax on tourism, which would reduce the number of tourists and the money raised could be used to offset the associated externalities.

      Last but not least. A monodimensional economy is highly vulnerable. Tourism is crowding put other economic activities which are more profitable and sustainable in the long run.

      The jobs that it creates are insecure, low-paid, temporary and denigrating. I’d rather work in an industry than wipe the ass of some random north-european oldman (luckily not my case).

      • Felix_47 says:

        Are these all tourists? We see a lot of young men in Northern European cities as well all of whom seem unemployed and rather aggressive.

      • rolwal says:

        Instead of your high tax on tourism porposal, I suggest a simpler way, reduce the cheap flights coming and you will propably also get a higher quality of tourists.

        • hiho says:

          That might also work I guess. But the point is to use the money which would be raised to compensate some of the negative externalities.

      • QQQBall says:

        Take 13% out of GDP and the effects will roll through the economy – in 5-10 years you will be begging for tourists. I have been looking at homes in BCN; the prices appears pretty reasonable. I see higher unemployment are more financial stress in BCN’s future. I’ll take my money elsewhere.

        Portugal has the right approach with golden visa, IMO, but there are reports that many homes are now priced above the 500k level to qualify.

        • Hiho says:

          No, we will not. And I will not explain why, I have already done it twice in this post.

    • alex in san jose says:

      “If they can pass strict taxes on foreign property purchases, taxes on vacant properties, and then ban airbnb.”

      I would like to see that in my country.

  5. ML says:

    I had never wanted to visit Spain but some years ago was obliged to visit Barcelona. Ok nothing special. Seeing a banner on a building complaining about a shortage of water for the locals because it was being diverted to construct apartments for tourists and ex-pats made me very concerned for the locals. I reckoned a back-lash would be in the offing.

    A solution to Barcelona’s tourism problem would be to impose a hefty tourist tax and a quota on the number of tourists at any one time.

  6. ML says:

    I’m told that the Port of Barcelona is not under the control of Barcelona city. The Port is allowing masses of big cruise ships – a profitable line for the Port – whose passengers don’t spend any money on shore. perhaps a postcard and a coffee, but who clog the streets.

  7. Cynic says:

    And here’s a shameless plug for a place run by an old girlfriend in Catalonia: ‘Mas Caterina’ near Girona. Heaven on earth.

    Why bother with Barcelona? So over-rated.

    Make life easier for the natives there, and go further afield!

  8. hiho says:


    First of all, I agree that these people painting the streets might not be the most brilliant youngsters in the world, to put it mildly, that goes without saying.

    Having said that, I believe that it is perfectly understandable the anger and rage that the local people are feeling. As I have already said many times in this blog. I am a perfect example of what is going on there. I have been forced to move out of Barcelona and its surroundings, where I’ve always lived, because there is no way on earth that with my salary I can afford the current rents (and I must also say that I have a good, stable, qualified job in the industry). Now I live in a semi-rural area where opportunities are scarcer but rents are like 60-80% lower.

    About that:

    “They are dim enough to think that if ‘exploitative’ tourist jobs go, they will be replaced with ‘ well-paid secure, high-quality employment’ in a Socialist Revolutionary national state.”

    The moderation of tourism wouldn’t be automatically followed by the (overnight) creation of these kinds of jobs, that’s for sure. Nevertheless, It is also sure that provided this trend continued for a long time, tourism would completely crowd out any other economic activities. The undeniable truth is that monodimensional economies that depend on a single product (either a natural resource or tourism) are highly vulnerable and tend to underdevelop.

    Tt is also undeniable that tourism (as it is now designed) is having an overall negative impact on the average citizen. Precarious, temporary shitty jobs do not offset its negative externalities.

    It would be possible the renaissence of the industrial economy here? Once so vibrant and large that Barcelona was the most important industrial cluster in souther europe? Well, it might be, it might be not. What I strongly believe is that tourism as it is currently functioning is going to have a very harmful impact on our future development.

    As we say here: “Pan para hoy hambre para mañana” which would translate into something like “bread for today, hunger for tomorrow”.

  9. Crazy Horse says:

    There is a simple solution. Just re-route 50% of the Barcelona bound flights to Detroit USA.

    • Jim Graham says:


      I don’t know if the ex-motor-city would let them get back on a outbound plane….

  10. Thunderstruck says:

    Obviously the solution is to build a copy of the Orland vicinity attractions there. You know, a Disney World compound on thousands of acres that will draw the tourists in *through* Barcelona, on their way to a captive attraction/resort-type destination. All of the benefits of tourism, with the worst part (the actual tourists) nicely corralled away from the ordinary goings-on of a major city and business center.

    Too bad ol’ Walt is gone. I’m sure he would have been more than happy to help in the development of such sorely needed development!

    The following statement is intended for those that are challenged at identifying satire and sarcasm when reading forum postings:

    “The above musings were strictly tongue-in-cheek.”

    • Jim Graham says:

      “The above musings were strictly tongue-in-cheek.”

      Shouldn’t be. It would be a elegant solution!

      Much better than subjecting tourists to Detroit. They might have enough fun to tell their friends to go there,

  11. TJ Martin says:

    Thus be the result when one tries to turn another’s home … into a freaking tourist destination inundating the area so completely that the residents living and paying taxes there are no longer capable of enjoying their own home / town / city / state

    Things are on the verge of getting just as ugly here in Colorado when it comes to the excess of tourists overwhelming our resources , cities , resorts and recreational areas . And though violence so far has been avoided .. don’t bet on that always being the case if the situation is not addressed and at least somewhat mitigated damn fast .

    So take both the article and my comment as a warning potential Colorado visitor / tourist . Behave .. or else .

    • Cynic says:

      This phase of civilization won’t last for much longer, it’s only a temporary irritation. We are all, anyway, just passing through.

      Where I live now it’s often completely impossible in the tourist season to walk fast along the street due to huge snakes of mostly Chinese tourists, so I tend to use the deserted back roads – better to evade than get angry.

      However, I have observed that the Chinese have very good street manners, and it’s quite hard to bump into them, they manage to manoeuvre perfectly. A rude Chinese tourist is the very rare exception.

      French, Italians, Spaniards, however, are generally loud, uncouth, inconsiderate and egotistical – basically one has to shove them or be shoved. Dutch and Germans slightly better mannered.

    • Dave says:

      or else what?

  12. nick kelly says:

    It’s 12 % of Catalonia’s economy and 25% of Barcelona’s economy.
    Do you think the yobbos vandalizing property are taking time off from coding their next app?
    As soon as any kind of issue arises anywhere, a certain element seizes on it to vent the fundamental human propensity towards tribal violence.
    It can be tourism, it can be resentment against too many (blacks, Muslims, Jews, etc. etc.)
    If nothing else is handy a soccer game will suffice to work the old black magic: us versus them.
    At least the latter don’t usually bother to dress their fun up as an expression of some ideal.

    • fajensen says:

      Do you think the yobs vandalising property are taking time off from coding their next app?
      Dunno about those specific “yobs”, but, in a way it is quite likely that they are doing exactly that: We have literally tens of thousands of university graduates in Spain, Italy, Portugal and Greece all eking out some kind of marginal existence on about 1000 EUR a month doing some kind of zero-our-contract service work in an unrelated field.

      They will never own “property” because they cannot afford any on their salary and whenever their dreams were when they took the advice of the politicians and business people about the value of education, they can forget about those. They are abandoned, lost. So why should they care?

      And if they thought that maybe Growf will raise wages and create better opportunities, they got yet another million “refugees” coming to suck up any such opportunity. That is one of many active, ongoing, attacks on our own youth. Of course they will eventually want to pay back society for the favour.

      On the positive side, the “yobs” might succeed too because with New Public Management “Government as a business”-dumb-assery in full force, they do not need to do a full-on violent revolution like the old days, it is enough to just inflict enough chaos to damage the “brand value” of “Barcelona” and “Something will be Done”, the money and initiatives will suddenly pour forth from the officially-declared totally barren public coffers.

      It doesn’t look pretty when protest, arguments, and politics cannot get results, while “Decreasing the book value” of the NPN-state-as-business, now THAT, gets top-priority attention these days, far more effectively and with even less work.

  13. Willy2 says:

    – This is a toxic combination: rising real estate values, economic “weakness” and Eulen slashing wages. I am surprised to see that the workers haven’t gone on strike earlier.

  14. Stevedcfc72 says:

    Lionel Messi’s to blame for all the Chinese tourists in Barca.

    Maybe now Neymar has gone to PSG, Paris may have the same problem.

  15. randombypasser says:

    Aaaah, hilarious as ever, the globalization that is. And everybody loves it when were talking about good things in ones life. When start talking about bad things in ones life there’s many things but none of them gets tagged to globalization, oh no, the bad things emerge from nowhere there.

    Classical cherry-picking in Barcelona. Citizens and especially the City like the jobs, the money tourists leave there but the tourists should be invisible and soundless, immaterial at best, will you please?

    How hard it is to understand that when You take a coin for it’s beautiful heads side You’ll absolutely have to also take the not so beautiful tails side? There’s no free lunches, never was and never will be.

  16. intosh says:

    “When Spain’s recently privatized airports, operator AENA gave the contract for private security to Eulen last year, the company immediately slashed the salary for established personnel to €1,100. For new hires, it was even worse: they get paid just €900 a month, not nearly enough to make ends meet.”

    I’m surprised they still allow unions and strikes. One step at a time, I guess…

Comments are closed.