There are four kinds of foreigners in Barcelona: tourists, guiris, immigrants and Andorrans. The first are just visiting, so they sightsee. The second are foreigners who are here for other reasons, like work or a student exchange. Guiri rarely refers to anyone who isn’t from European stock, so that even though it’s derogatory, it actually identifies a superior status in relation to other foreigners. “Immigrants” is used for these other outsiders, who would be guiris if it weren’t for their roots in China, Pakistan or Senegal; undocumented arrivals are also called immigrants, only this time they are “illegal”. Finally, there are the Andorrans, driving around in their oversized cars, down for the day from their mountain valley tax haven. Andorra is what we’d be if the Catalan business class had its way, an exclusive theme park for international financial shenanigans.
Barcelona is one of the only places in the world where tourists are referred to in more abusive terms than immigrants. I’m not saying they’re treated worse: face to face, tourists get the royal treatment, while new arrivals from the Dominican Republic may end up with a job cleaning tourist hotel rooms or washing tourist dishes. Most immigrants have it much harder, but tourists are the real intellectual enemy.
What once was just a city then became a model, then the model became a brand that now requires rebranding, so we can get it back to being a city again.
Plenty of places in the world find tourists irritating. Few, however, have turned their ire into a current of thought, elaborated theoretically, backed by socio-economic data and supported bibliographically by academics. The graffiti on the walls of the Barceloneta may read “Tourist you are the Terrorist”, and the t-shirt may say “Tourism Kills the City” (under a skull with two selfie sticks as crossbones), but this is just the visceral tip of an anti-tourism body that is grounded in mind. Take this axiom: what once was just a city then became a model, then the model became a brand that now requires rebranding, so we can get it back to being a city again. As complicated as that might sound, every single Barcelonan knows exactly what it means.
It’s taken just thirty years for Barcelona to go from a provincial metropolis desperate for foreign approbation, where mass tourism would be the simplest and most unarguable validator, to a city where the majority of residents feel tourism has gone too far. The reasons seem legitimate enough, faced with overcrowded streets, rocketing rental prices and the proliferation of indecent-quality restaurants (serving fake tapas, phoney paella and vile espresso). All are factors that could be seen to “denaturalise” traditional neighbourhoods where density once seemed proportionate, inhabitants were longstanding and shops were provided by your neighbours themselves. No one with car traffic on their street wants it to be made pedestrian anymore, since that would only lead to a parade of noisy terraces and the permanent stink of cheap cooking oil, seeped into the pavement.
In the cruelest of ironies, some of the very things tourists admired about the city (the multi-faceted character of its barrios, the authentic pulse of the street) were being put at risk by the very presence of the admirer. This is like a socio-cultural example of the observer effect in physics, described by Niels Bohr in the 1920s, where to detect an electron a proton must interact with it, inevitably altering that electron’s path. Barcelona is like an electron being bombarded by a thousand protons at once, each sent out by an equally earnest inquirer, throwing whatever logical path the city may have had into mad disarray, driving it bat crazy.
Of course, it’s impossible to convince potential tourists not to come; then once they’re here, you can’t ask them to turn the lights off and leave things in the dark. As if the way to save Barcelona from the tourist gaze would be to convince visitors to close their eyes. I’m reminded of that quote from Thoreau, “A man is rich in proportion to the number of things which he can afford to let alone.” Now wouldn’t that be an interesting anti-tourism campaign: “Barcelona: are you rich enough not to come?”
The fact is, tourism in Barcelona is a direct consequence of public policy. City planning models have been predicated on creating settings and scenarios where visitors might experience something performative, where they might recognize themselves as protagonists in the city space. The tourist as public actor. That this has fed so neatly into the culture of selfies, Instagram and Pinterest, where visitors to Barcelona truly shine, can justly be attributed to what the city (and its citizens) had been setting the stage for all along. If now is the time to change all that, just what kind of theatre are we talking about?