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'Tourists go home, refugees welcome' | Why Barcelona chose migrants over visitors

Updated: Apr 5, 2022

Early last year, around 150,000 people in Barcelona marched to demand that the Spanish government allow more refugees into the country. Shortly afterwards, “Tourists go home, refugees welcome” started appearing on the city’s walls; soon the city was inundated with protestors marching behind the slogans “Barcelona is not for sale” and “We will not be driven out”.

What the Spanish media dubbed 'TURISMOFOBIA' overtook several European cities last summer, with protests held and measures taken in Venice, Rome, Amsterdam, Florence, Berlin, Lisbon, Palma de Mallorca and elsewhere in Europe against the invasion of visitors.

But in contrast to many, as fiercely as Barcelona has pushed back against tourists, it has campaigned to welcome more refugees.

When news broke two weeks ago that a rescue ship carrying 629 migrants was adrift in the Mediterranean, mayor Ada Colau was among the first to offer those aboard safe haven.

Is it really the case that Barcelona would prefer to receive thousands of penniless immigrants rather than the millions of tourists who last year spent around €30bn in the city?

The short answer, it appears, is yes. Increasingly it is tourism, not immigration, that people see as a threat to the city’s very identity – though numbers of both have risen exponentially in recent decades.

In 2000 foreigners accounted for less than 2% of the population; a mere five years later, the figure was 15% (266,000). In 2018, it is now officially 18% although, according to Lola López, the city’s integration and immigration commissioner, the true figure is closer to 30%.

The influx of new residents has radically changed the face of the city, but Barcelona has not seen a single anti-immigrant protest of any substance – nor is immigration an issue at local elections.

According to research by Paolo Giaccaria, a social scientist at the University of Turin, the case of Barcelona “establishes a connection between two types of mobility that are at odds with each other: northern tourism and southern migration. It subverts the common feeling about which kind of mobility is desirable which is not.”

Immigration has changed the city, but tourism is destabilizing it – and even people in the industry agree that it can’t go on like this.

In 1990 the city received 1.7 million tourists; last year the figure was 32 million – roughly 20 times the resident population. The sheer volume of visitors is driving up rents, pushing residents out of neighborhoods, and overwhelming the public space.

“We see immigration as having a positive impact – people have integrated well,” says Natalia Martínez, a councillor in Ciutat Vella, the old part of Barcelona which has been at the forefront of both immigration and tourism. “It’s brought more than it’s taken away in terms of identity.”

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Her colleague Santi Ibarra argues that the diversity that comes with immigration enhances the city – but tourism contributes nothing positive. “Tourism takes something out of neighborhoods,” he says. “It makes them more banal – the same as everywhere else.”

Like London, the number of native Barcelonans is quite small, especially in working class neighborhoods, which is where most of the latest wave of immigrants have made their homes.

The three largest groups of immigrants are Europeans, Latin Americans and North Africans, mainly from Morocco, as well as significant Chinese and Pakistani populations – though López says that Barcelona has its own identity, distinct from that of Catalonia or Spain. “We’ve found that children born here of immigrant or mixed couples tend to identify themselves as being from Barcelona, rather than anywhere else.”

The main obstacle to integration is language, especially as schooling is in Catalan, which none of the immigrants speak. Magda Martí is a headteacher in a primary school in Ciutat Vella, where more than half the children are foreigners and says that, along with language barrier, food can also be an issue.

The city council requires the school to provide a halal meal option if only one family requests it; Martí says this is tricky, not only logistically but ideologically for a non-religious school.

However, she adds: “To me it’s all the same where a child is from, the important thing is to make them and their families welcome.

The really positive change is in the new teachers, who don’t see immigration as a problem. They see diversity as something positive, which is how I see it, too.”

The neighborhood where immigration is most visible is El Raval (from the Arabic, meaning suburb), which lies on the opposite side of La Rambla from Ciutat Vella, and has long been synonymous with drugs and prostitution.

Until quite recently it was known as Barri Xinès (Chinatown), though there were no Chinese people there – a reflection of its perceived otherness. These days it’s nicknamed Ravalstan for its sizable Pakistani population.

Residents say the sensation is of being under TOURIST occupation. It’s this that gives Barcelonans the sense of displacement, that their city and its identity are being stolen from them, making them little more than extras on the set of their own city – a sensation that not even large-scale immigration has provoked.

In Barcelona especially, immigrants are seen as part of the fabric – working, building communities, and generally making a contribution to the city while tourists simply use it.

“The image of the city that the people themselves have projected is of a place of welcome,” says López of the ease with which new immigrants integrate in Barcelona. But – at least for the foreseeable future – tourists can expect a different reception.

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