Locals have mixed feelings about Barcelona’s lack of tourists in lockdown

Barcelona’s citizens are reclaiming their city as the Covid-19 lockdown has reduced a flood of tourists to a trickle.

The news is a mixed blessing with the economy dealt a severe blow amid death and suffering, but the end of residents feeling outnumbered on their own streets.

Florist Laura Gomez, referring to the city’s famous promenade said: “Las Ramblas are ours again.”

She reopened her stall on the promenade as lockdown eased after 27,000 deaths in Spain.

Now she can hear birdsong instead of noisy crowds amid the caricature artists that throng the street in busier times.

“You can’t imagine how annoying it is” with tourists, Ms Gomez said.

“People asking you all day long where the cathedral is, where the beach is.

<figcaption class='imgFCap'>Police officers stand at the beach as they ask people to not sit, in Barcelona, Spain (Emilio Morenatti/AP)</figcaption>
Police officers stand at the beach as they ask people to not sit, in Barcelona, Spain (Emilio Morenatti/AP)

“I am not a tourist information office!”

She still sells her dwindling number of local clients cut roses and sunflowers, bouquets, seed packets and potted geraniums, shunning the cacti in souvenir mugs that are a staple of other flower stalls.

“Tourists only want to take a photo, why would they want to buy flowers?” said Ms Gomez.

“No one lives here anymore.

Go to the outer neighborhoods and you see people in the street.

“Here the people couldn’t take it any more and left.”

Some, however, miss the vibrancy they say tourists provide.

“It is a pity to see Las Ramblas like this,” said Jose Montero, who works nearby and lunches daily at an outdoor restaurant on the street.

“Las Ramblas needs life.”

<figcaption class='imgFCap'>People sunbathe as they sit on park benches (Emilio Morenatti/AP)</figcaption>
People sunbathe as they sit on park benches (Emilio Morenatti/AP)

The city’s other top site, Antoni Gaudí’s La Sagrada Familia Basilica with its sandcastle-like spires, remains closed.

Without the gawking multitudes, the only sign of life outside was an elderly man dozing on a bench.

But whatever their feelings on tourism, Barcelona’s residents are about to feel the economic pain of living without a huge chunk of the 10 million foreigners who visit each year.

Unlike Italy, which is opening up to foreign tourists, Spain is waiting until July to lift its 14-day quarantine on incoming travellers, despite pressure to restart its economy that relies on tourism for 12% of its activity.

The national statistics office said on Monday that zero tourists arrived in April.

A year earlier, seven million tourists spent seven billion euros (7.8 billion US dollars) in Spain.

While Europe considers how to safely resume continental travel during a pandemic, Spain’s government is encouraging Spaniards to vacation domestically.

Catalonia’s separatist-led regional government has even launched a tourism campaign to attract people from elsewhere in Spain.

Many business owners and workers, however, fear they may not make it without foreigner customers.

Jesus Martin runs the Can Ramonet restaurant specialising in paella near Barcelona’s seaside.

<figcaption class='imgFCap'>Local customers sit in a terrace bar in Barcelona (Emilio Morenatti/AP)</figcaption>
Local customers sit in a terrace bar in Barcelona (Emilio Morenatti/AP)

He is unsure whether he can cover his costs with local clients.

“This place has been in my family for three generations, so staying open is about more than just money,” Mr Martin said.

“We depend on foreign tourists… I am not sure if we can get by with just Spaniards.”

Barcelona became one of the world’s top destinations after using the 1992 Summer Olympics to showcase its Mediterranean climate and cuisine, mesmerising architecture, and liberal lifestyle.

Visitors kept on coming, despite a terror attack on Las Ramblas in 2017 and rioting by Catalan separatists last year.

The city of just 1.6 million people welcomed a record 11.9 million tourists in 2019, almost 10 million of them from abroad.

But even though the sector provides Barcelona with 15% of its economic activity and 10% of its jobs, a growing number of citizens have soured on tourism.

A survey of 3,600 residents by the city hall last year found that 61% felt Barcelona could not handle greater inflows.

Graffiti saying “Tourists, go home” popped up, along with protests against short-term rental platforms like Airbnb which residents blame for driving up property prices and forcing locals to move out.

<figcaption class='imgFCap'>A man walks past a man sleeping in the street in downtown Barcelona (Emilio Morenatti/AP)</figcaption>
A man walks past a man sleeping in the street in downtown Barcelona (Emilio Morenatti/AP)

Many complain about the replacement of family-run stores by global chains, and the rowdy behaviour of foreign youths lured by low-cost flights.

“Barcelona has become a top destination for cheap, drunk partying.

“I’m all for partying, but I’m the first one to go out on my balcony and shout for people to be quiet,” said Mario, who did not share his last name because he works in the tourism sector.

Mario was rollerblading along a beachfront free of rental bikes and Segways weaving around couples taking selfies.

In place of sun-baked bodies luxuriating in the warm sun and gentle breeze, the sand was occupied by a handful of families who flouted a temporary prohibition on sunbathing and let their children frolic in the surf.

“The beach has become wholesome and pure again,” Mario said.

Rafaela Perez and her husband considered the hiatus from the hubbub bittersweet as they lingered on the boardwalk.

“It is glorious to have all this space for ourselves, but we know that it is not good for the economy,” the 63-year-old Ms Perez said.

“We have neighbours who are having (financial) difficulties.

“And the worst is yet to come.”