The other day, I stumbled upon an article about a Spanish documentary called “Bye Bye Barcelona”. It is about the impact tourism is having on the city that I once called home. I was in Barcelona for about half a year back in 2009, interning at a company that struggled and ultimately collapsed under the financial crisis. Work was a drag: Shortly after my arrival, most full-time employees were fired and so it was pretty much up to a handful of interns and unmotivated employees to do all the work.
What made it bearable, however, was the city surrounding us. When I wasn’t working, I spent most of my free time wandering the city streets and taking pictures. The weather was spectacular for the beginning of the year: there was a constant breeze coming from the sea and the bare trees cast sculptural shadows onto the ornamental pavement. On one particular spring day, I decided to skip the bus walk home from work. It was a two hour trip across the outskirts of the city, in the beautiful evening sunlight and past many places I had never seen from the bus window. Kids played in the streets, people chatted on park benches, little shops sold vegetables and an old lady enjoyed the sunshine on her balcony. That afternoon, Barcelona seemed fundamentally real.
Looking back at my photos, I remember how fascinated I was with that place and how it looked interesting during the day as it looked vivid at night or after the rain. It is really no wonder that Barcelona captures the world’s imagination like it does. When I made phone calls from the office, saying that I was “calling from Barcelona”, people instantly seemed to pay more attention.
It wasn’t before April that the city experienced the full onslaught of visitors. Virtually over night, its center became full of crowds that had arrived by the busload, that queued in front of restaurants and subway stations, and clogged the city center with cameras in hand. I was of course equally guilty of running around with a camera – but I had also been there long enough to see the city go from a reasonably regular place to a full-blown tourism theme park, as “Bye Bye Barcelona” calls it.
According to the film, this transformations has intensified over the past few years. In 2014, Barcelona is expecting eight million tourists, an amount that vastly outnumbers the roughly one million city inhabitants. City folks point out that certain places — like the iconic Rambla or Park Güell — have (in their words) been “lost” to the tourists. These places are no longer visited by the locals because they are too overrun by tourists and cater exclusively to them.
That point resonated with me for a number of reasons. In many places, I have seen tourism transform a place into the lowest common denominator. Visitors want different things – and the industry is exceptional at providing it by sanding down a given destination’s edges, filling its gaps with souvenir shops and unauthentic food. It turns the real into the fake, preserves an agreed-upon state and thereby makes these places fundamentally uninteresting. The late David Foster Wallace once described tourism as follows:
It is to spoil, by way of sheer ontology, the very unspoiledness you are there to experience. It is to impose yourself on places that in all noneconomic ways would be better, realer, without you. It is, in lines and gridlock and transaction after transaction, to confront a dimension of yourself that is as inescapable as it is painful: As a tourist, you become economically significant but existentially loathsome, an insect on a dead thing.
The documentary underlines what effect tourism is having on locals, whose city is being eroded by economic interests of that industry. Here in Berlin, I work in the city center – which is where the aforementioned busloads of tourists are offloaded – and many of my friends never even set foot into that district. They echo what the people in Barcelona are saying: That there are places no local in their right mind would want to visit.
Tourism brings a lot of money to Berlin – just as it does to Barcelona. But I can’t help and wonder if there isn’t a more reasonable way of welcoming visitors to any city than to sacrifice entire districts to the circus that mass tourism has become. As with many other things, we always seem to realize the destructive effects of “too much” when it is already too late: Searching for “Bye Bye Barcelona” on YouTube produces a sponsored link as the first search results. It is by a travel company, inviting us to “Discover Barcelona”.