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Barcelona tourists hit by eggs as protests mount over crowds

MADRID — When Edgar Torras started leading tours of Barcelona, locals thanked him for bringing in tourists. Seventeen years later, they pelted his customers with eggs and the city has further restricted his route to avoid over-crowding in the historic city centre.

The Sagrada Familia church in Barcelona receives masses of tourists every day, but some Spanish people have risen in protest as mass tourism becomes a nightmare despite the jobs and income it generates. Photo: AFP

The Sagrada Familia church in Barcelona receives masses of tourists every day, but some Spanish people have risen in protest as mass tourism becomes a nightmare despite the jobs and income it generates. Photo: AFP

MADRID — When Edgar Torras started leading tours of Barcelona, locals thanked him for bringing in tourists. Seventeen years later, they pelted his customers with eggs and the city has further restricted his route to avoid over-crowding in the historic city centre.

“Suddenly we seem to be the enemy,” said Torras, founder of Barcelona Segway Glides.

It’s becoming part of the tourist scene not mentioned in the guidebooks. Some Spaniards increasingly view visitors as a burden rather than an economic boon, with a backlash building in Barcelona and other hot spots in Spain. Last month, masked youths attacked a tourist bus in the city, and a protest against incomers is set to take place in the Basque resort of San Sebastian on Thursday (Aug 17).

With Spain the world’s biggest tourist destination after France and the United States, the government is beginning to worry that the unrest could undermine that status. Tourism accounts for about 13 per cent of all jobs in Spain. The number of foreign visitors will rise about 12 per cent this year to a record 84 million in 2017, according to analysts at CaixaBank SA.

“It’s one of the sectors that is most driving our economy today and we have to look after it and support it,” Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy said this month. “If people come here it is because they like Spain.”

On Aug 12, about 200 people from the Barceloneta neighbourhood took to the city’s beach to protest the proliferation of tourist apartments, the El Pais newspaper reported. Youths targeting a tourist bus in Barcelona last month punctured a tire and sprayed it with a slogan saying “tourism kills neighbourhoods”.

Locals object to the hoards of tourists crowding city streets and sometimes their anti-social behaviour. Barcelona has cracked down on unlicensed rentals for tourists that residents blame for the surge in tourist numbers.

“If you go to one of the Barcelona neighbourhoods affected, you can understand the anger,” said Jordi Alberich, director general of Cercle d’Economia, a Barcelona-based business association. “There has been a lot of complacency about the cost of tourism and now the model is very hard to change.”

If anything, numbers are set to increase, with cruise ships pouring into ports across the nation. As many as 3.6 million cruise passengers disembarked in Spanish ports in the first half of 2017, double the amount of a decade ago, according to the Public Works Ministry.

As well as restricting Segway tours, Barcelona Mayor Ada Colau has taken more sweeping steps to forbid new hotels to open in the centre of the city and clamped down on unlicensed room rentals through platforms such as Airbnb.

Over in Ibiza, Gabriel Alberto Andrade has lived in a van for a year, unable to pay for a home in Spain’s Ibiza where rental prices have shot up as mass tourism takes its toll on locals.

Known as much as a wild party island as a place of tranquility with coves of turquoise blue water, Ibiza has increased in popularity over the years.

But behind the sea, sun, dancing and yachts lurks a serious problem of tourism overcrowding that is preventing many locals from finding affordable accommodation.

“It’s not easy living in a van but rental prices are crazy, you just can’t pay them,” said Andrade, a 47-year-old Argentine who has lived in this part of the Balearic Islands since 2000, but was forced to move out of his home when he separated from his wife.

In his metallic blue van, he sleeps on a sofa-bed and makes meals on a small gas cooker. On the roof, solar panels provide him with electricity.

Just under a decade ago, he says he could rent a country house for just 400 euros (S$642.42) a month. Now for that price, he would be reduced to sharing a room.

The number of tourists visiting Ibiza, a small island of just 142,000 inhabitants, has almost doubled from 1.7 million in 2010 to three million in 2016, according to the regional statistics institute.

High demand for accommodation prompted the appearance of scores of tourist rentals, most of them without a permit, provoking a rise in real-estate prices and making it hard to find a room for less than 600 euros.

The citizen’s Platform of those Affected by Rental Prices in Ibiza has detailed the existence of countless abusive offers — 500 euros a month to live on a balcony, 300 euros for a mattress not including the bathroom, or 2,100 euros for a small caravan.

With a salary of just 1,400 euros as a truck driver and vendor, Andrade chose to buy his van for 3,000 euros.

Four caravans are parked next to his van in a wasteland, its occupants opting for a nomadic lifestyle due to high rental prices.

The situation gets even worse in high season, when the number of people on the island triples and temporary workers are needed in the tourism industry and other sectors, such as health services.

Such is the difficulty to find affordable housing that the Can Misses Hospital in Ibiza, the main one on the island, has rehabilitated an unused floor to provide accommodation for temporary workers.

Javier Segura, a 30-year-old microbiologist, arrived in June for a three-month contract and was forced to stay there after an unsuccessful search for a flat.

“Some of the offers were rip-offs and others were really pricey ... over 2,000 to 3,000 euros,” he said.

“And the offers with accessible prices, between 1,000 and 2,000, were all taken.”

In an ironic twist, the tourism sector itself is finding it hard to find much-needed temporary workers if it doesn’t offer accommodation with the contract.

Years ago “in May, I would receive 10 to 12 CVs every day to come work in the summer, now just one or two come,” says Joan Riera, owner of the Can Alfredo rice restaurant in Ibiza Town, who has since opted to hire local personnel only.

“We have perverted the system,” said Lucas Prats, president of an organisation that promotes tourism.

Before there were “buildings dedicated to residential homes and those in tourism zones. Now everything is for tourism.”

As such, the regional parliament of the Balearic Islands has passed a law banning the use of apartments for tourists without a permit.

It also limits to just over 623,000 the number of visitors who can stay in hotels or legal rental accommodation in one go, and plans to reduce that figure to around 500,000.

“If we continue growing in this direction there will come a moment when we will not be a competitive destination. And neither will it be an area where one can live well,” says Vicent Torres, director of tourism for the local government in Ibiza.

“That’s why we feel the need to reduce it all a little.”

The aim is to stop locals from turning against tourism, an important activity for an island that was once poor and relied solely on fishing and agriculture before turning into an attraction for visitors in the 1960s.

“In Ibiza there are no exceptions, we all live off tourism,” said Prats.

For Torras in Barcelona, the latest restriction is a fresh blow to his business after the council stopped him taking tours down the Barcelona beach front last year. Typically, he leads two three-hour tours each day for up to six people who pay 70 euros (S$112.43) each to be guided round neighbourhoods such as the Gothic Quarter, the Ramblas area and the old port. He relies on his summer business to get through the winter.

“This is the time when we have to save,” Torras said. AGENCIES

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