Social Protests Put Tourism at the Centre of the Political Agenda
Tourism & Airbnb are forcing Barcelona residents out of popular neighborhoods.
by Soledad Morales-Perez, Lluıs Garay & Julie Wilson
Before the Covid-19 pandemic, tourism had already crossed into mainstream political debates in many cities. Overtourism, in particular, had created a stage for resistance and social conflict.
Short-term tourism rentals (such as Airbnb) brought conflicts and growing inequalities. These issues are being debated even more since the pandemic. Barcelona is a case in point.
Barcelona is one of the most popular tourist cities in Spain. It is also among the top ten cities worldwide for Airbnb rentals. (See our recent article in Tourism Geographies.)
In Barcelona, short-term tourist rentals have given rise to social and political conflicts. This has influenced debates on how government can and should intervene to regulate communities.
The “Airbnb Effect” in Barcelona: Socio-spatial Inequalities, Speculative Practices, & Tourism Pressures
In 2018 Airbnb listed 16,477 accommodations across Barcelona’s ten districts. The types of accommodations included:
— 50.4% (70% of bedspaces) entire homes
— 48.8% (28.7% of bedspaces) private rooms
— 0.8% (1.3% of bedspaces) shared rooms
The emphasis on entire homes reflects the commercialization of Airbnb accommodations. They are increasingly part of the “commercial economy”, rather than the “sharing economy”. There is no real “resident owner” involved. Commercial businesses run their properties as a type of distributed hotel.
Airbnb accommodations in Barcelona are centralised with an uneven spatial distribution. They are mostly in the city centre and near the main tourist attractions. But they are also in places that are accessible by public transport to tourism and leisure attractions.
But what attracts tourists the most to these neighbourhoods is their local lifestyles. They are neighbourhoods where ‘things happen’ and where a tourist can live “like a local”. Examples in Barcelona include the Raval and the Gothic Quarter.
These neighbourhoods already had tourist-local tensions before the arrival of Airbnb. And these have now become worse.
The “Airbnb Effect” on Housing Markets & Resident Displacement
Airbnb-facilitated rentals reduce the availability and increase the cost of housing. They displace residents who can no longer afford to live in their neighbourhoods.
The biggest problem is the commercialization of Airbnb accommodation. In cities like Barcelona, it is transforming the “sharing economy” into a “property speculation economy”. Airbnb’s “sharing economy” ideals are also eroded in this process.
Professional “multi-hosts” (those listing two or more properties) increase displacement pressures and exclusionary displacement on local residents. “Displacement” forces lower income residents to leave an older neighbourhood that is popular with tourists.
“Exclusionary displacement” keeps locals from moving into an older neighbourhood due to the high costs.
Displacement also affects the mobility, living costs, and quality of life of lower-income locals.
Digital Protest of Tourism and Airbnb in Barcelona
The short-term rental situation in Barcelona has given rise to social movements calling for a Right to the City. They are especially opposed to the inequalities and displacements caused by the “Airbnb effect”.
The Assemblea de Barris per un Turisme Sostenible (ABTS, Neighbourhood Assembly for Sustainable Tourism) has been a centre for this response.
Protests against Airbnb take place both on-site and even more intensely on social networks.
Because of this, we undertook a content analysis based on a sample of about 16,000 Twitter posts containing the terms “Airbnb” + “Barcelona”.
The ABTS campaigns in Twitter (such as #desmuntantAirbnb — #dismantlingAirbnb) attempt to out Airbnb as a powerful business lobby. Criticisms were particularly directed at the platform’s illegality. It is illegal because it is more oriented as a professional business rather than a local sharing platform.
One of ABTS most prominent campaigns centred on the hashtag #Noensfaranfora (#we won’t be pushed out). It focused on the housing crises and the use and occupation of public space for private gains. (Examples include parks, sidewalks, and street parking.)
ABTS positions itself within the “tourism degrowth” idea. Degrowth activists seek to reduce the number of tourists and tourism businesses in a destination. This political positioning led to a change of the association’s name to “Neighbourhood Assembly for Tourist Degrowth” (ABDT).
In the Twitter protests, Airbnb was accused of contributing to tourism growth (#UNFairbnb). It was also associated with perceptions of injustice, illegality, and threats to the “right to housing”.
The Barcelona city government was also implicated in these protests. ABTS/ABDT also developed an intricate dialogue with some public officials. Thus, Twitter became a channel for debate over policy and action by government departments and associated entities.
Barcelona’s experience shows how Airbnb’s digital platform creates inequalities in tourism cities. It also highlights how social media as a digital platform enables protests, movements, and calls for local action on policymaking.
It’s all about the local going “translocal” and taking advantage of global social networks. In this way, protests and resistance garner support from all quarters in order to put the rights and needs of residents at the heart of the discussion.
This article was based on
About the Authors
Soledad Morales-Pérez is Associate Professor of Economics and Business Studies at Universitat Oberta de Catalunya (UOC) and member of the UOC tourism research group NOUTUR. At present, her research interests include the analysis of collaborative economies in socio-spatial transformations of tourism spaces, new narratives and measurement of tourist sustainability, and event tourism impacts in public space.
Lluís Garay is Associate Professor at Universitat Oberta de Catalunya (UOC), Barcelona, Spain. His main areas of research interest concern diverse forces transforming the tourism activity, highlighting the collaborative, co-creative, sustainable and responsible processes causing disruptive impacts on urban and rural socio-economic environments and organizations. He is the coordinator of the NOUTUR research group (UOC) which aims to analyse the impacts that tourism and leisure activities are causing within the contexts of destinations (territories), organizations (both business and non-business) and consumption patterns (both tourists and residents).
Julie Wilson is Associate Dean for Research in the Faculty of Economics and Business and the NOUTUR Research Group at the Universitat Oberta de Catalunya (UOC), Barcelona. Her research interests include the role of tourism in the transformation and socio-spatial evolution of landscapes (urban and rural), the role of culture and creativity in sustainable tourism activity and evolutionary economic geography as a conceptual framework in urban and regional tourism development.
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