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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