It’s one of Europe’s most popular tourist destinations, but has Barcelona (and Catalonia) hit political boiling point? Today we examine the roots of Barcelona and Catalonia’s wider political tensions and question whether the impact of the region’s fight for independence might harm their lucrative tourism industry and whether Barcelona can create a sustainable solution to their influx of tourists. 

Political Context of Catalonia 

Catalonia, the autonomous community of Spain, was, for many years, an independent region of the Iberian Peninsula. Until 1714, the region was relatively independent (it was grouped under the Crown of Aragon through a dynastic marriage). After the War of the Spanish Succession (1705-14), all regions of modern-day Spain were united under a common national identity. Attempts were made to curb Catalonia’s strong sense of identity by imposing various laws and, of course, making Spanish the region’s first language. It took until 1931 for Catalonia to gain back some sense of autonomy. The monarchy restored a Catalan government, giving considerable power back to the region.  

Catalonian Culture Revolution 

Unfortunately, that autonomy wasn’t to last long. 1938 saw another leader attempt to, once again, bring Catalonia under centralised control. The Franco regime saw many of the traditions and the language of the region quashed through totalitarian force. Catalonia had to wait until General Franco’s death (1975) before once again gaining back some of its political freedom. 1977 saw Catalonia’s government restored, followed by a regionalisation programme in 1978 that furthered their independence. In 1979 Catalonia became a nationality, and Catalan and Spanish became the joint official languages of the region.  

A New Struggle 

It wasn’t until 2009 that Catalonia’s autonomy was challenged. After the financial crisis moved through Europe, the Spanish central government ruled there was no legal basis for recognising Catalonia as a nation within Spain. The struggle for independence escalated with several non-binding independence referendums held in the region and more staunchly pro-independence politicians rising up the Catalonian government ranks.  

The Catalan region holds significant economic power, adapting when needed throughout history to keep its place among the most prosperous areas of Spain. If Catalonia were to gain independence, Spain could lose up to 20% of its economic output. For many, the vote for independence is, first and foremost, a decision to retain the economic power of Catalonia.  

A Coupling of Political Tensions 

When considering Catalonia as a tourist destination, could the increasing tension affect tourist numbers? Some residents are vehemently supportive of independence, while those opposed to leaving Spain do not feel comfortable speaking out against the separation. According to the Guardian: “One business owner in Terrassa [ a city in the province of Barcelona] expressed the hope that Catalonia would remain part of Spain, before swiftly refusing to elaborate or be named.” This perceived political aggression and regional instability may detract tourists and, in turn, severely slow the region’s tourism development.    

Political tensions come at a time when Barcelona, the capital of Catalonia, is having its own, somewhat bitter, reflections on how tourists are affecting their city. Visitors are, according to residents, indirectly driving up housing prices and giving rise to low-paid jobs in the tourism sector. Often, such tensions would deter visitors; Barcelona’s government has pre-empted this by restricting tourist numbers altogether. How can tourists vote with their feet when they’re prohibited from stepping into the city?        

Positives Among the Problems? 

As students of our HND in Travel and Tourism know, sustainability can be vitally important to a location’s social context. Tensions rising between locals and tourists can be, in the long-term, extremely damaging. By creating a restriction on tourists, Barcelona is tackling the problem of social sustainability head-on, and this is certain to ease pressures on those living in the city. With numbers back under control, the city can look forward to showing guests a more authentic experience, as opposed to one that panders to mass tourism. Rather than making a quick buck, Barcelona recognises its unique cultural heritage is the factor that will keep attracting tourists. Perhaps, tourists may even come to recognise the region’s fight for independence is part of the very cultural fabric that makes it such a unique place to visit.  

Interested in learning more about how political tensions can affect tourism? UKCBC’s HND in Travel and Tourism Management is ideal for those who want to learn about the wider social contexts that can affect the tourism sector. Find out more about studying with UKCBC by getting in touch with a course advisor today. 


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