by Chris Leadbeater, The Telegraph, August 2, 2017
It is a city of popular appeal where soft urban sands, gloriously outlandish architecture and some of Europe's best metropolitan nightlife lure millions of holidaymakers every year.
But behind the gleam of La Barceloneta Beach, the distinctive buildings conjured by Antoni Gaudi and the evocative bars of the Barri Gotic, Barcelona is having an increasingly acrimonious debate about the effects of the travel industry on its quality of life. And the issue is now spilling over to cause trouble for the people at the core of the matter. Tourists.
Last Thursday witnessed a disturbing assault on an open-top tour bus as it pulled up outside the Camp Nou stadium of the city's iconic football team FC Barcelona. The incident saw the vehicle's tyres slashed, and graffiti daubed onto its sides - with many of those on board fearing that they were caught in a terrorist attack rather than what transpired to be a protest.
These included British visitor Andrew Carey of Bridgend, who was on the bus with his wife Natalie. "I really thought it was a terrorist attack and my number was up," he said.
"Masked men surrounded the bus and began shouting. We were getting ready for someone to come up the stairs with a knife or a gun. It was a relief that they just sprayed graffiti.
"It was very frightening."
The four masked assailants scrawled "El Turisme Mata Els Barris" in Catalan - which translates as "Tourism Kills Neighbourhoods" - onto the bus windscreen.
They are believed to have been members of Arran, the youth wing of a radical pro-independence Catalan political party, the Candidatura d'Unitat Popular (CUP; Popular Unity Candidacy), which has been vocal in opposition to the number of visitors in the city.
The group was certainly behind footage which emerged yesterday of tourist bikes having their tyres punctured in acts of deliberate sabotage. The video, which was posted to an Arran Twitter account, showed the bicycles being disabled with knives. It appears to have been filmed in the Poblenou district, which sits immediately to the north-east of La Barceloneta. It was accompanied by the message "Ya estamos hartas de la ocupación por parte de empresas turísticas del espacio público del barrio" - which translates as: "We are fed up with the occupation by tourist companies of the public space of the neighborhood."
The tourist bikes - which can be locked into public bike racks and accessed via a smartphone app - have proved controversial in a city where there is a lack of storage space for local cyclists, and where there are fines for tethering a bicycle to a lamp-post or leaving it in an unauthorised area.
The attacks have caused a firestorm of words in the city's corridors of power.
Santi Vila, a councillor with a business brief, has said the CUP is “making a big mistake”. He has also said that Arran’s campaign will damage the reputation of both Barcelona and Catalonia, and is a counter-productive measure that “won’t help the cause of independence”.
In response - The Guardian has reported - Mireia Boya, a CUP member of the Catalan parliament, has accused Vila of “neo-liberalism”, saying that his stance on the tourism is “pure economic violence” in a city where the cost of rent and housing is sky-rocketing.
Laura Flores, a spokesperson for Arran, has also commented, saying that the group's vandalism is “a response to the violence we face every day. The street must be allowed to speak; it’s the only place where we can fight.”
However, although an undoubtedly disturbing development, the CUP's guerilla tactics are not so much a revolutionary step as an intensification of an internal argument which has been bubbling to the surface in the city's political discourse for more than two years.
Barcelona has been heavily marketed as a tourist destination in the last quarter of a century - since the 1992 Olympics transformed its image from that of a crime-ridden and often dirty port in the north-east of Spain to a metropolis of high art, culture, cuisine and fun. It is estimated to pull in 32 million visitors a year, including cruise passengers and day-trippers.
However, this influx has come at a cost for the city's 1.6 million inhabitants, many of whom think their home is being damaged by its neverending popularity.
This groundswell of opinion has helped to change the city's government.
June 2015 witnessed the election as mayor of Ada Colau, a 43-year-old Barcelona resident, born and brought up in the city, whose ascent has been creating ripples.
Ms Colau is the the first female politican to hold Barcelona's top administrative role. But more remarkable is that she started out as a left-wing activist whose party, Barcelona en Comu, sprang from an earlier group, Plataforma de Afectados por la Hipoteca (PAH; Platform for People Affected by Mortgages) - which was formed in response to the financial crisis of 2008 as a grassroots organisation campaigning for housing rights.
Ms Colau has been critical of Barcelona's unstinting embrace of tourism, and is on record as wanting to limit the number of visitors who flock in to the Catalan capital.
“If we don’t want to end up like Venice, we will have to put some kind of limit in Barcelona,” she told Spanish newspaper El Pais shortly after her election.
“We can grow more, but I don’t know how much more.”
“We may have to put a moratorium in place regarding new hotels and tourist apartments, carry out a census and create a preventive policy before things get out of hand, as has occurred in Ciutat Vella [the city’s Old Town].”
In the first 26 months of her term in office, she has been true to her word. In January, a new law - which seeks to limit the number of beds available in hotels and tourist apartments - was brought in.
The administration has also imposed a moratorium on the construction of new hotels in the city, and has stopped issuing new licences for tourist apartments.
Such moves have gained approval among some of the city's inhabitants - including the Barcelona Urban Neighbourhood Association. which has organised "occupations" of busy central areas, such as the key avenue La Rambla, in protest against the number of tourists.
But the policies have also sparked anger among tourism officials, who fear that Barcelona's position as one of Europe's A-list city-break destinations is under threat.
“The focus of the plan is wrong,” Manel Casals, director general of the Barcelona hoteliers association said in January.
“Of the 32 million people who visited Barcelona last year, only eight million stayed in hotels. Twenty-three million were day-trippers who spend very little money in the city.
"You’re not going to regulate tourism by limiting the number of beds. They’re not regulating tourism, they’re only regulating where people sleep.”
However, her response - the Tweet appeared on Sunday, three days after the incident, and two days after news of it broke - was not quick enough for her predecessor in the mayoral hot-seat, Xavier Trias, who has accused her of a cover-up. Ms Colau has been unequivocal in her condemnation of the attack on the tour bus, tweeting that: "We have requested a report, and we denounce the attack on the tourist bus. Protesting against tourism can never be about intimidating people or damaging facilities" (see the original Tweet, in Catalan, above).
“Covering up acts of vandalism is the same as justifying them,” he said.
In reality, this fraught situation is extremely unlikely to affect any tourist visit to this much-loved destination. But tempers are also likely to remain high both in council chambers, and among protest groups and business organisations . Other cities where high visitor numbers are a cause for concern are sure to watch ongoing developments with interest.