Date
13 December 2017
Sagrada Familia in Barcelona. The influx of travelers is not only a threat to fragile landscapes and heritage sites—it also affects residents’ quality of life. Photo: Reutters
Sagrada Familia in Barcelona. The influx of travelers is not only a threat to fragile landscapes and heritage sites—it also affects residents’ quality of life. Photo: Reutters

Too much of a good thing?

A dramatic surge in the number of foreign visitors, especially during the summer months, has prompted Spanish destinations to find new ways to encourage year-round tourism and promote lesser-known destinations.

Just as Uber and BlaBlaCar have sparked a war with Spanish taxi drivers, hoteliers blame the sharing economy—i.e. the surge in private apartment rentals—for the hordes of travelers flooding many tourist destinations. Some platforms, such as Booking.com, have pulled offers of illegal accommodations from their sites while others, such as Airbnb, maintain that they are “part of the solution to mass tourism created by large hotel chains.” Jose Luis Zorera, executive vice president of the Exceltur alliance for touristic excellence, insists that if only apartments that meet legal requirements were rented out, the problem would be reduced by half.

What no one disagrees on is the remarkable surge in tourists: Spain expects to welcome some 80 million visitors this year—30 million more than it did just six years ago. That was when travelers began choosing Spain instead of Arab countries due to emerging conflicts. A spokesperson for Barceló Hotels noted that the trend could suddenly reverse: “Who says that this won’t change in the wake of the Barcelona attacks?”

For now though, this influx is creating headaches for the industry. Octavi Bono, director-general of Turismo de Cataluña, prefers to talk about congestion rather than overcrowding, pointing out that it varies from one area to the next. Catalonia, for example, receives 2.4 tourists per resident—not bad when compared with Austria (3.22) or Croatia (3.28). What those figures don’t show is that 47 percent of tourist activity in Spain is concentrated in the months between June and September. In Bono’s opinion, “It’s about managing tourist activity, not reducing it, because there are many areas that are not yet fully developed.”

There are in fact places where the tourists-to-resident ratios are sustainable, such as Las Palmas de Gran Canaria, which annually receives 400,000 visitors (a number equal to the island’s population). Pedro Quevedo, the island’s Counselor of Tourism, said tourism has developed without incident in Las Palmas.

In some overcrowded destinations, the tourism industry is rethinking its approach. Meliá Hotels International, for example, has worked with local authorities in Magaluf, Majorca, to offer amenities that will attract a more discerning clientele. In the majority of the Spanish regions, the tendency in recent years has been to promote themed excursions as well as sporting, cultural and gastronomic activities in order to shift tourism to other areas and encourage greater activity during the non-summer months. The Community of Valencia has notably introduced 14 strategies to develop tourist attractions centered around heritage, culture and gastronomy. These options also tend to attract visitors with greater purchasing power.

Some popular Spanish sites have been controlling the flow of visitors since well before this latest influx, and others could emulate their example. The famous Alhambra in Granada and the magnificent Hayedo Montejo beech grove near Madrid require visitors to book in advance. And the Altamira caves in Santander created a replica in order to avoid damage to the prehistoric cave paintings that might be caused by the carbon dioxide exhaled by visitors. There are also coves in Menorca and Ibiza that restrict car access; instead they offer park-and-ride lots with public transportation to beaches, helping ensure their sustainability.

But the influx of travelers is not only a threat to fragile landscapes and heritage sites—it also affects residents’ quality of life. According to Zorerea, more than 350,000 apartments have become available for tourist rental during the past six years. “The growth and chaos of these new accommodations has become a breeding ground for ‘tourist phobia,’” he said. This is especially a problem for residents of destinations in the Balearic Islands and Catalonia, with other cities—Valencia, Madrid, Malaga— “likely to find themselves in the same predicament soon.”

One reason is that the boom in tourist apartments has reduced the supply of rental properties, causing a spike in rental rates for locals looking for housing. Prices have shot up 20 percent in Las Palmas de Gran Canaria, San Sebastian and Barcelona. The resulting gentrification along with the strain on public services and traffic jams are giving public officials pause, with some taking new measures to curb demand and restrict the range of goods and services put in place to attract tourists.

One initiative that has received considerable attention is the “Sustainable Tourism Tax” that went into effect in July 2016 in the Balearic Islands, which welcome 15 million tourists annually (their population is 1.2 million). The tax varies according to destination, accommodation type, dates and duration of stay, the objective being to encourage a more even flow of visitors throughout the year. Expected to raise €64 million this year, it is still too early to assess its effectiveness—or to know how many other areas may follow suit.

– Contact us at [email protected]

JC/RA

A journalist of Cinco Días

EJI Weekly Newsletter

Please click here to unsubscribe