Barcelona anti-tourism protesters spray visitors with water guns

Thousands took to the streets of Barcelona over the weekend to protest overtourism, some armed with brightly colored water pistols that sent bewildered visitors fleeing restaurant patios, abandoning half-eaten meals.

The protesters, who carried signs reading, “Tourists go home,” say tourism has inflated the cost of living for Barcelonians, while the revenue from visitors hasn’t been fairly distributed across the city. As travel rebounds after the end of pandemic restrictions, the frustration in Spain reflects growing backlash against overtourism around the world.

  • Led by the Assemblea de Barris pel Decreixement Turístic, or the Neighborhood Assembly for Tourism Degrowth, the protesters listed 13 demands in a manifesto published Saturday, including restrictions on tourist accommodations, fewer cruise terminals in the city’s port and an end to tourism advertisements using public funds.
  • Local authorities estimated 2,800 people participated in the protests. Daniel Pardo Rivacoba, 48, a member of the organizing group, said as many as 20,000 people from 170 organizations took part in the protests.
  • Rivacoba said the use of water guns was a spontaneous decision made by individual protesters and was not suggested by organizers. “Receiving water on your face is not nice, but it’s not violent,” he said.
  • Responding to growing concerns, Barcelona Mayor Jaume Collboni pledged Saturday to reserve 10,000 residential units usually used by tourists for local residents and increase taxes on tourists, among other measures.

Barcelona has long been a popular tourist destination. Last year, close to 26 million visited the region, according to official figures, and Spain was the second-most visited country in the world, according to U.N. Tourism. Barcelona’s population is 1.7 million.

Along with Venice, it is where the backlash against overtourism began, said T.C. Chang, a professor of geography at the National University of Singapore who researches urban tourism.

“As far as I know, there has been no explicit violence. But [overtourism] was already recognized at least 2-3 years before the pandemic,” he said in an email, noting that residents have also put up “No tourists welcome” signs in neighborhoods. “What has happened in Barcelona will spread to more tourist-crowded places beyond Europe,” he added.

Barcelona is not alone in its discontent with visitors. Locales in Japan, Indonesia, Greece, Italy and the Netherlands have also taken steps to curb influxes in the past year.

In Japan, one town sought to install a huge screen at a popular photo spot in front of Mount Fuji to stop tourists from taking selfies and causing traffic jams. Last year, the Greek government imposed a new timed ticketing system for the ancient Acropolis, a UNESCO World Heritage site, along with a visitor cap of 20,000 people per day. Venice experimented with extracting extra fees from tourists, while Amsterdam restricted the construction of new hotels.

“I think the key point here is about sustainable tourism development and sustainable management of tourist flows within a country,” said J.J. Zhang, a tourism geographer at Nanyang Technological University in Singapore.

As a possible solution, Zhang suggested determining the capacity of popular sites and controlling traffic, such as by “using technology where real-time data can be communicated to tourists such that overcrowded places could be avoided,” he said.

But Bob McKercher, a professor on tourism at the University of Queensland in Australia, raised another issue: The majority of tourists worldwide are domestic. “So while overtourism may be a long-standing issue,” he said, “can you really stop people from visiting their own country?”

Beatriz Ríos contributed to this report.

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