Barcelona welcomed a whopping 32 million tourists in 2017!
On one hand, we’re thrilled and thankful that so many people have loved our city enough to come visit. Barcelona is quickly becoming one of Europe’s most popular destinations, and with so many awe-inspiring sights—the likes of which you won’t find anywhere else—it’s easy to see why. However, when millions of people are pouring into the city year after year, a few issues are bound to come up. Here are a few common problems that inevitably result from mass tourism—and how you can visit Barcelona in a responsible way without contributing to them.
Mass tourism in Barcelona
While tourism numbers in Barcelona were astronomical in 2017, keep in mind that the city has just 1.6 million residents. That’s just a fraction of the number of visitors who come into town every year! And even when you only count the permanent residents, it’s still one of Europe’s most crowded cities, with over 15,800 inhabitants per square kilometer.
Of the 32 million annual tourists, about half only come here on a day trip, perhaps spending the day in Barcelona as part of a cruise. These visitors usually spend very little money and limit themselves to the city center, unintentionally causing massive overcrowding issues in a compact space.
Plus, with the tourist-to-resident ratio more lopsided than ever, it’s getting more and more difficult for locals to go about their daily lives. The Boqueria Market serves as a prime example of this. Once a bustling-yet-authentic neighborhood market, it’s become overrun by eager tourists who come to check this Barcelona icon off their list—often without spending any money to support the local vendors.
The mass tourism problem doesn’t just affect tourist attractions themselves. It also has repercussions for the hospitality industry. Early last year, the local government announced a ban on the construction of all new hotels in the city center. No new licenses for tourist apartments will be granted, either. Both are steps that aim to aid the crackdown on mass tourism, which often drives locals out of their homes in favor of accommodations for travelers.
On the other hand, those visitors who do book accommodation spend an average of just two nights in Barcelona. As a result, the same attractions experience massive overcrowding as hordes of tourists rush in, selfie sticks in hand, eager to work their way through the guidebook but not to get off the beaten path and explore the hidden local gems that make Barcelona what it truly is.
When to visit Barcelona responsibly
We’re not trying to scare you away from visiting Barcelona. In fact, we would love for you to come and experience one of Europe’s most magical cities (it’s a big tourist draw for good reason!). However, it’s more important than ever to be a conscious, responsible traveler when visiting Barcelona. That starts before you even get on the plane, as you start making your initial travel plans.
In order to visit Barcelona responsibly, we recommend coming during the low season. Fall, winter and even early spring see much fewer tourists than the late spring and summer months, so overcrowding is less of an issue. Even the winter months tend to be warm and sunny, and there are plenty of delicious seasonal foods (which taste even better when purchased from a local vendor!) to enjoy as you explore the city.
Plus, believe it or not, low season still offers plenty of fun cultural events in the city! On January 5, you can watch the parade in honor of the Three Kings’ Day, celebrated the following day. February 8-12 plays host to the Santa Eulaila festival, and Carnaval takes place at the end of the month, sometimes running into early March. In April, love and literature come together to make Sant Jordi one of the most magical days of the year. And all throughout that time, it’s calçot season! What could be better?
Where to stay in Barcelona responsibly
So you’ve decided to visit Barcelona during off-peak season. Great choice! Now you need to find a hotel for your travel dates. Aim for boutique, non-chain, Catalan-owned hotels. A few of our favorites are Casa Bonay, Hotel Brummell, and Magatzem 128.
With so many tourists visiting every year, demand for accommodation is higher than ever. Additionally, many have taken advantage of the opportunities to rent out rooms and apartments on sites such as Airbnb. Throw in the fact that there are an estimated 50,000 illegal beds for tourists available in unregistered properties, and it’s easy to see the negative impact this can have on the residents who have lived in their barrios for generations.
Want to be sure you’re staying in a legitimate accommodation? This site features a handy tool where you can check whether or not the property you’re staying at is registered for tourism.
Where to eat in Barcelona responsibly
We here at Devour Barcelona are all about eating responsibly and supporting local businesses over chains. If you’re here reading this, that probably means that you have at least some interest in doing the same, and we applaud you for that! But what are some best practices for eating like a local, especially in a short amount of time? Focus on Catalan-owned businesses using locally sourced products. We love Sergi de Meià, if you need a suggestion to get you started. Once there, ask your server for recommendations if you’re not sure what to order—they’ll know the highest quality options that locals love.
Avoid chain restaurants as much as possible. The key is to ensure that every single euro you spend goes back into the local economy.
A responsible travel itinerary for Barcelona
Once you’re in Barcelona, it’s important to keep these same principles of responsible travel in mind as you go about your day. A good way to start is by asking yourself what you want to do, rather than what you think you’re supposed to do. If you’re not the biggest architecture fan, don’t feel like you have to go checking off all the major Gaudí sights off your list just because the guidebook says you should. And if you are an architecture lover, consider checking out some lesser-known modernist buildings, such as the Recinte Modernista de Sant Pau.
When it comes to exploring the city, think twice about joining a free tour. Be aware that in many cases, the guides have to depend on tips as the only payment for their work, or even have to pay the company in order to work. Additionally, the size of the group on a free tour is often too large for the group to move through the city without disrupting daily life of the locals there. For any tour that you plan to take while traveling, familiarize yourself with the ethics of the company and the group size before signing up.
As we mentioned before, central neighborhoods can get quite crowded, which makes it difficult for locals who live there to go about their daily routines. Consider getting off the beaten path and visiting neighborhoods outside of Ciudad Vella. Poble Nou, El Clot, Les Corts and Sants are all great places to start. You’ll be experiencing a slice of local life few tourists get to see, and your tourist dollars (well, euros) will be supporting the hard-working locals who often get the short end of the stick when it comes to mass tourism. It’s a win-win situation!
What not to do in Barcelona
We’ve talked a lot about active steps you can take in order to practice responsible travel in Barcelona, but there are a few things to keep in mind when it comes to behaviors to avoid as well.
First of all, when it comes to finding your way around, don’t just assume that locals will speak English. Yes, many do, but going up to someone and immediately asking for help or directions in English can come off as rude, even if that’s not your intent. A few words—as broken as they may be—in Spanish or Catalan will go a long way.
Once you get to where you’re going, make sure to make the most of your time there. Don’t just visit sights and monuments to take a picture and check it off your list. Research shows that many tourists don’t even go inside the Sagrada Familia, and 20% of those that do only spend 10-20 minutes in the interior (just enough time to get a good photo!). This contributes to making the area around the Sagrada Familia, and other popular tourist sites, unnecessarily crowded, which can make it hard for locals to get from place to place. If your only reason for going somewhere is to get that iconic Instagram photo (you know, the one that everyone else has), skip it and visit somewhere you really care about instead.
You’ll probably want to pick up a souvenir or two from your trip. Don’t just pop into the nearest tacky souvenir shop and grab the first magnet you see. Instead, consider supporting a local business or artisan and getting a completely one-of-a-kind souvenir while you’re at it. Which leads to our next point…
Our favorite small shops and artisans
Supporting local companies is a great way to ensure that you don’t leave Barcelona with the same kitschy souvenirs as everyone else. Instead, pick up a Barcelona-themed souvenir at a locally owned shop, such as Wawas, B de Barcelona, OMG BCN, or Barceloning. Not necessarily after something Barcelona-branded? Pick up some lovely artisan soaps or creams at Les Topettes, or gourmet goodies at Colmado Murria.
Follow these tips and you can leave Barcelona knowing you’ve been a great tourist. Don’t stop there—take a look at the rest of our responsible tourism guides: