Tourist Tuesday, 4/30/19

“In 1904, the city of Barcelona received a petition for development from Eusebi Güell, an industrialist and a patron of the arts. Güell had bought a tract of land on the flank of Muntanya Pelada, or Bald Mountain, which rises above the plain that extends to the city’s port. Güell had ambitious plans for his hillside property: it was to be designed by Antoni Gaudí, the celebrated architect, with sixty houses set on the bosky grounds. Güell’s business model, which required prospective residents to invest in the project before their houses were constructed, was flawed, and only two were ever built. But the grounds were completed. Serpentine paths twisted up the hillside, and at the center of a spectacular bifurcated staircase there was a fountain in the form of a lizard, its skin composed of mosaic shards in blues and yellows.

The development was sold to the city in 1922, four years after Güell’s death, and became a beloved public park, with the lizard as its icon. In time, Park Güell proved too beloved for its own good, and by 2013 nine million visitors were traipsing through it annually. “The Park has almost stopped being used as a park,” a municipal report noted at the time. It had become, instead, a “tourist place.” That year, in an effort to mitigate the damage and crowding caused by so much foot traffic, the city introduced a fee to access the park’s “monumental core,” which includes Gaudí’s staircase, and also limited the number of tickets sold to eight hundred an hour.

From the local government’s perspective, the change was a success: the year after the restrictions were introduced, the number of visitors fell to 2.3 million. Still, the flow remains constant. When I arrived at Park Güell at 11 a.m. on a Tuesday morning in February—hardly peak season—I couldn’t get in for another two and a half hours. When I finally entered the monumental core, at a cost of ten euros, it was as bustling as Coney Island’s boardwalk on a sunny Sunday afternoon, and Instagramming admirers formed a mob around Gaudí’s lizard.


Some twenty million tourists descend annually on Barcelona, which has a population of just 1.6 million people. (New York City receives three times as many visitors but has more than five times as many residents absorbing the influx.) A lot of factors have contributed to the throngs in Barcelona. Policy decisions in Madrid, and in Catalonia, encouraged a boom, and framed it as an economic-survival strategy, especially after the global financial crisis of 2008. City officials successfully sold Barcelona to the international market as an especially fun European destination, with good weather, pretty beaches, lively night life, and just enough in the way of museums and architecture to provide diversion without requiring an onerous cultural itinerary.


Currently, one and a half million visitors stay in Airbnbs in Barcelona annually, and although five times as many people book rooms in traditional hotels, the company is influencing what the city feels like, especially for permanent residents. There are almost twenty thousand active Airbnb listings in Barcelona. Even in residential neighborhoods, the sounds of dozens of wheelie suitcases rattling over the cobblestones after an 11 a.m. checkout—and of late-night revellers sampling the bars that have sprung up to cater to them—have become as reliable as the bells of the Sagrada Familia, Gaudí’s unfinished drip-castle cathedral.


Airbnb, aware of the growing hostility toward it, has begun working more closely with local governments. Among other things, it has introduced an online tool that makes it easier for the city to identify hosts who are breaking rental laws.”


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