The rumble of suitcases being rolled through the streets is a constant backdrop whenever you take a walk from the central Puerta del Sol to the heart of the Plaza Mayor. It drowns out people’s voices, the sounds of the many languages spoken, the music of the mariachi, even the cries of the beggars, and rings in your ear like the buzzing of an annoying fly. The busy sidewalks of the city center are filled with the incessant coming and going of bodies leaning under the weight of pieces of luggage of every size and shape: they look like so many reincarnations of Sisyphus in shorts and sandals as they disappear and appear again from the doorways of the 9,000 Airbnb accommodations in the central area of the city (there are around 12,000 in total across the Spanish capital, with 18,000 in Barcelona and 135,000 throughout Spain).
The scene just described comes from Madrid, but it’s exactly the same—or worse—in Barcelona, Seville and Palma de Mallorca. In the few square kilometers that have been invaded by the hordes of tourists in each of the centers of the Iberian peninsula, Spain has been turned into a caricature of itself: the city becomes an amusement park designed for the tourist-customer, who wants paella, sangria and flamenco and can get them right away for a premium.
The supply is endless, responding to the insatiable and constant demand, and continues to grow in a country with an economy traditionally based on the twin pillars of tourism and construction. These two sectors have always gone hand in hand, but now, with the advent of low-cost flights (representing 53.7% of the total market share), the surge of urban tourism and the explosion of platforms such as Airbnb has finally made them truly inseparable.
One in every four homes for rent in the Latina area (one of Madrid’s nightlife districts) is being rented to tourists, for an average of one out of 10 homes throughout the central area of the city. In Madrid, such tourist rentals yield an average of €92 per day (a figure that is even higher for Barcelona), which is around triple the amount from a long-term rental. In addition, many of these apartments are owned by investment funds, often foreign, which have sniffed out the opportunity for fast profit at zero risk and have taken over large shares of the housing market, taking advantage of the legal vacuum that affords opportunities for this type of speculation.
The city administration, under Mayor Manuela Carmena (Ahora Madrid), is trying to patch up the loopholes by passing more restrictive legislation on tourist rentals, but the social and economic damage has been done, and it is very serious: in the center of the city, rents have increased by 38% from 2014, rising above pre-crisis levels, while in Barcelona they rose by 40%.
The immediate consequence is the emptying of the city centers and the confinement of thousands of middle-class workers to the desolate suburbs, since their salaries, which have not increased in many years, are in some cases equal to, or even less than, the asking rent. It has come to the point that eviction, which used to be a problem tied to mortgages and apartment purchases, has now become a looming specter for the average tenant.
The numbers we mentioned describe a painful process of transformation of the cities: small businesses are closing, swallowed up by large chains which have already razed the city centers (metaphorically speaking, but sometimes literally) in order to rebuild them for the specific use of tourists, and, most importantly, to foster consumption. Those of the locals who resist these trends inevitably run into serious problems with their neighbors, and, in the end, those who don’t leave out of necessity do so out of sheer desperation, because the influx of visitors (10.2 million in Madrid and 13 million in Barcelona in 2018) is obviously incompatible with residents living their daily lives.
Just as an example, in the Sol neighborhood in Madrid, the ratio is two tourists for every resident. All this is due first and foremost to the shortsighted policies focused on immediate gain that date back to the time of the Franco regime and have never been corrected by any subsequent government. On the other hand, the interests at stake are now enormous, and the turnover of the tourism industry makes it virtually untouchable: almost 15% of Spain’s GDP is generated by activities tied to the sector, which employs 2.8 million people, 14.7% of the working population. In 2018, according to data from the Ministry of Industry, 82.6 million tourists visited Spain (which has a resident population of 47 million inhabitants), spending a total of €90 billion, an amount which doubles if one includes the wealth generated as a whole.
With such numbers, it’s no surprise that Seville (another city being asphyxiated by tourism) was eager to host the World Travel and Tourism Council Global Summit on April 3, with Barack Obama as a special guest, who came from the US to argue for the benefits of more tourism. Does Obama know that, despite the exponential growth in the number of tourists, precariousness continues to be a big problem in Andalusia—especially in sectors related to tourism—and unemployment is lingering at 21%?
On the other hand, the 1,650 representatives of companies, multinational corporations and 140 investment funds that took part in the summit are certainly aware of the situation, as they are thriving from exploiting precarious cheap labor. According to the World Travel and Tourism Council, Seville will benefit from €2 billion of investments as a result of hosting the summit.
Everyone is waiting for this money to rain down like manna from heaven, but it would be worth it to ponder a few difficult questions first: is this money, and all the money generated by the industry, enough to offset the environmental and social impact and the long-term costs, tangible and intangible, of a senseless and exploitative rise in tourism? And, most importantly, is it enough to take the city away from its residents and hand it over to large multinational corporations and investment funds?