Barcelona residents are so fed up with tourism they’re squirting visitors with water guns as they try to enjoy their meals

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In a protest blending whimsy and frustration, thousands of Barcelona residents turned against mass tourism on Saturday. They were armed with an unlikely weapon: the water pistol. 

The Las Ramblas district—a popular tourist site—turned into an impromptu waterpark as protestors squirted water guns at unsuspecting tourists enjoying their al-fresco meals. 

Video footage from CNN shows a pair of boys hobbling away from a water-gun attack, ice cream still in hand. Another woman, with her hair soaked, awkwardly scurried away from the barrage as the protestors yelled at her and her tourist peers to “go home.” 

While the protest methods may be light-hearted, the protestors’ sentiments were not. The Assemblea de Barris pel Decreixement Turístic (ABDT), which organized the protest (but told Fortune that the water guns were spontaneous) argue that citizens “suffer directly” from the record-breaking influx of tourists that visit the city every year. 

Since the pandemic, tourists have visited the historic city in record numbers—in 2023, 23 million visitors stayed overnight in Barcelona, dwarfing the city’s population of 1.62 million. These visitors also spent €12.75 billion ($13.8 billion), or about 15% of the city’s income, according to Barcelona’s City Council. 

Yet, the ABDT argues the average citizen doesn’t enjoy these profits, and instead faces soaring housing costs, precarious employment, and a lower quality of life. 

Housing costs

Rent prices have soared in the Spanish city by 68% over the past decade, while the cost of purchasing a home has increased by 38%, according to Jaume Collboni, Barcelona’s mayor. He and other city council officials blame the explosion of the short-term rental market in the city for driving up costs. 

Last month, during a city council press conference, Collboni revealed Airbnb-style short-term housing rentals would be banned from the city by November 2028. The move would make about 10,101 apartments available for long-term rentals. 

“We are confronting what we believe is Barcelona’s largest problem,” Collboni said at the event. He added the housing affordability crisis has particularly affected young people, and has become a major driver of inequality in the city. 

The mayor who served in the eight years before Collboni, Ada Colau—who had a history of left-wing activism before taking office—also took a number of steps to curb short-term rentals. These policies include limiting the number of hotel beds permitted in the city, banning new hotels in the historic center, and forcing landlords who want to rent their apartments on Airbnb to obtain a tourist license through city hall. 

“Barcelona has tried to introduce some bold strategy,” Anna Torres-Delgado, a research fellow and expert in Barcelona tourism at the University of Surrey, told online magazine Reasons to be Cheerful. “In some ways it has been useful and has worked well in the historic center.”

However, protestors say these policies are not enough. A spokesperson from ABDT told Fortune that Collboni’s policies only aim to swing from apartment rentals to hotels, which are “equally built on housing buildings, so the problem remains.”  The spokesperson also accused Collboni of trying to benefit hotels, which are “historically related” to the mayor’s Socialist Party of Catalonia. 

Among other guidelines, ABDT’s manifesto calls for the elimination of tourist apartments and a ban in building more short-term rental housing. 

Pandemic isolation

During the COVID-19 pandemic, the city suffered from tanking visitor numbers. Bars, shops, and restaurants shuttered their doors as one of the main sectors of the economy–tourism–faltered, prompting debate that the city needed to diversify its economy. 

That’s part of ABDT’s argument. The group’s spokesperson said the pandemic was “much harder” on Barcelona’s touristy neighborhoods and that specialization in tourism makes the city extremely vulnerable to multiple issues, like “pandemics, geopolitical changes, terrorism, tourism trendies and so on.”

However, the quiet provided residents with an opportunity to re-discover their city. 

“We don’t want life to be like it was in the pandemic but it also gave us a chance to see that there were other possibilities without massive tourism,” Martí Cusó, who lives in the Gothic Quarter, Barcelona’s busiest tourist area, told The Guardian.

“My barrio is so saturated with tourists it’s impossible to meet someone in the street or for children to play or even to get a good night’s sleep,” he says, adding that the pandemic provided a “missed” opportunity to rethink the city. 

Most residents, however, have a positive view of tourism, according to the city council’s report “Perception of Tourism in Barcelona 2023.” Some 70.9% of people believe tourism benefits the city, a rise of 4% compared to 2022. 

Yet, even those who recognize that tourism is essential to Barcelona’s economy have become disillusioned by the influx of travelers, according to the report. 

“More and more people believe that Barcelona has reached its tourism capacity limit,” it says.

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