Barcelona tourist protest banner, Spain.

Social Travel and the Deregulation of the Travel Industry

On our recent trip to Barcelona, local protests over tourism, illegal holiday rentals and anti-social behaviour had us pondering the rise in the form of travel we most love and have spent so many years promoting: local travel and the idea of living like locals.

Sadly, the growth of the so-called sharing economy and the deregulation of the travel industry that has gone with it, has generally had a negative impact on the locals and their neighbourhoods, the very things that made local travel so appealing in the first place.

These are some random reflections as we think through this and think about our role and where we stand.

“Tourists, pack your bags and go home!”

In Barcelona, like in many European cities with healthy democracies and an enthusiasm for freedom of speech, local residents like to hang flags from windows and sling banners bearing political slogans over balconies.

On my first trip to Spain in the mid nineties, I vividly recall the colourful rainbow flags of the LGBT movement that hung with pride from almost every little loggia and parapet in the old inner city neighbourhoods of the more cosmopolitan Spanish cities. In Barcelona in 2000, we saw pro-Palestinian flags in support of the Second Intifada alongside the anarchists’ anti-globalization banners.

A few years later peace symbols and smiley faces accompanied anti-American slogans crudely painted onto sheets protesting the US occupation of Iraq and Second Gulf War. On our next trip I noticed an increasing number of Catalan flags — even more prominently flying this time than they were when we were last in Barcelona four years ago. And of course there have always been football flags.

On this recent trip, banners drooped from diminutive Juliet balconies in the Gothic Quarter, were draped over decorative wrought iron railings in the increasingly gentrified barrio of El Born, and were suspended across the dark alleyways between the old apartment buildings in working class, waterfront La Barceloneta where they flapped loudly in the breeze.

Their stencilled messages in red and black were not directed at governments nor were they in support of political movements. They were intended for tourists — the very people who we encourage to use holiday rental websites, travel to cities like Barcelona, rent apartments, and stay a while so they can learn to live like locals.

Some of their messages were polite. “SHHH!! PLEASE, LET US SLEEP!!” they implored — a plea to “the airbnb crowd”, our guide informed us, explaining how unhappy locals were that tourists had invaded their homes, were holding wild parties in their apartment blocks, wreaking havoc in their neighbourhoods, and changing the very character of their city.

The signs in Catalan, our guide told us, were too rude to translate. The most polite was “Tourists, pack your bags and go home!” Give or take a word or two.

The anti-social element of social travel and local travel

Each night Terence and I walked through the Ciutat Vella (Old City) on our way to a restaurant or tapas bar crawl we spotted a small protest by local residents, usually on Placa Sant Jaume, slap-bang between the Renaissance Palau de la Generalitat and the fourteenth century Casa de la Ciutat, the seat of the Catalan government and Barcelona’s City Hall.

Yet the foreign media had stopped reporting the protests in Barcelona that first began during the peak summer tourist season. I recalled seeing the stories start to appear in August and September covering the backlash by locals against tourists, apparently sparked by the drunken antics of nude Italian tourists.

I remember the many headlines. “Barcelona residents fight back against naked drunk tourists”. “Barcelona organizes against ‘binge tourism’”. “Barcelona residents protest over rising number of tourists”. “Barcelona residents rally against illegal tourist flats”. “Barcelona residents protest against anti-social behavior”.

Unlike in, say, Venice, where mass tourism, and particularly cruise ship tourism has been held solely responsible for the massive crowds, dreadful pollution and environmental damage, in Barcelona, the forms of tourism that evolved as alternatives to the mainstream were also being blamed.

Ironically, these forms of tourism, local travel and social travel (forms of travel that we have long advocated here and elsewhere) are intended to be more responsible and sustainable. Tourists settle in to places for longer longer, get an insight into how the locals live, explore their neighbourhood, shop their markets, support local businesses, and give back to the local economy.

How could forms of travel with such good intentions be blamed for the debauched conduct in Barcelona that has been keeping locals awake until the wee hours, offending their sensibilities, and transforming the personality of neighbourhoods by turning them into tourist ghettoes, be held responsible? How could social travel be anti-social?

The Sharing Economy and Deregulation of the Travel Industry

The ‘sharing economy’ that emerged from social media technologies that enabled innovative new forms of businesses that gave rise to phenomenons such as social dining and underground restaurants, guided tours with locals, share rides via services such as Uber, and peer-to-peer accommodation where people could rent apartments and rooms on airbnb and Roomorama and sleep on sofas via couchsurfing, seemed so good. So how could it be so bad?

Well, apparently in Barcelona the sharing economy hasn’t been so altruistic. Whole buildings have been given over to short-term holiday rentals. There have been no limits on the number of people who can stay in rentals or if there have been they havn’t been observed. Rather than shop the markets, cook a local dish and enjoy a quiet meal in, tourists staying in Barcelona prefer to party like backpackers before taking to the streets and plazas to make mayhem.

Barcelona, like many cities throughout the world, has experienced the deregulation of the travel industry that caught everyone by surprise and is now seeing everything from car share companies to holiday/room rentals being declared illegal as they have been in cities such as Paris, New York, and Sydney.

Many proponents of social travel and the sharing economy are condemning the judgements, fearing the beginning of the end of social travel. I don’t think social travel is going anywhere. A little regulation will simply give greater protection to travellers and businesses and improve the lives of local residents like the people of Barcelona.

A case for a little more regulation

Regulations should be instated that put a cap on how many units in a building, a block or a neighbourhood should be dedicated to short-term rentals. Owners of flats and couches and kitchens and cars, and the travel websites that enable those social transactions and experiences should be made to be more accountable and responsible.

When new friends you meet at a bar invite you to dinner at their home, let you stay in their spare room and drive you to the airport, it’s a very different situation to a meal, bed/room or ride that’s booked and paid for online. What happens if you get violently ill from the food, your wallet mysteriously disappears, or the car you’re riding in is in an accident and you’re injured? What about if that guided tour you do with a local is crap or you turn up to your rental, which you’ve already paid for, to find the owner living there and unaware their apartment was even on Craigslist? Does your travel insurance cover you?

For some, talk of regulations and rules and serious stuff like insurance takes the fun out of social travel, a form of tourism that evolved so organically in ways that appeared much more natural and authentic when compared to the manufactured nature and artificiality of, say, theme parks and cruise ship tourism.

Trust me, I’m the last person who wants to see the demise of social travel and local travel (I’d rather see cruise ships go), however, I’d like to see a little more regulation and more responsibility taken. I’d rather follow a few rules than see the character of a great city such as Barcelona change even more than it has in the last decade, and find its naturally hospitable residents wanting to boot all of us out their doors!

A few rules relating to which areas can have rentals, how many apartments can be rented to tourists in a building, how many people can stay, and what time the music needs to be turned down, is a small sacrifice to make, especially compared to the sacrifice of local residents in places like Barcelona where they believe they are losing the soul of their city, and the very authenticity and laidback way of life that appealed to travellers in the first place.

A Code of Conduct for Responsible Travel

A couple of years ago, the Chinese government launched a campaign to promote ‘civilised tourism’ and released a code of conduct for its citizens to follow when travelling overseas. Maybe the residents of Barcelona, some of the most civilised people we know, need to do the same?

Or maybe as individuals we all need to behave more responsibly and be more sensitive to the people who live in the places we travel to? If anything, I see this situation as making an even more compelling case for local travel and connecting with locals when we travel. More on those thoughts soon.

There are 6 comments

Add yours
  1. Elaine

    Party travelers are the absolute worst. So self-centered that they don’t consider or care that they disturb fellow travelers or locals … I agree with the local Barcelonians on this one…!

  2. Lara Dunston

    Hi Elaine – so do we! They drive us crazy here in Siem Reap too – screaming and carrying on when they come home at 4am, forgetting their accommodation is in a residential neighbourhood. What annoys me about the situation in Barcelona is that once upon a time they were backpackers staying in hostels. Now they are renting apartments and damaging the reputations of all travellers, including the kind of slow/local travellers who like to stay in apartments to travel to learn live how the locals live – not travel to party like backpackers. That’s why I don’t think more stringent regulations will hurt. It will keep the locals happy and it will ensure there is some more balance and neighbourhoods aren’t overran with tourists.

  3. Joanne Bretzer

    Adding to this problem in South and South East Asia is the huge influx of Chinese travelers who are new to traveling, and full of new wealth. Thailand in particular is struggling with balancing the welcome yuan and the unwelcome behavior. It is always hoped that travel makes us better people, but apparently there is a long learning curve, at best. I really appreciate you highlighting this issue.

    Of course, there is the problem of the “sharing economy”, which is hardly about sharing. On one hand, cheap(er) digs in Seattle, for instance, are well appreciated, as the cost of hotels is extortionate, it is not charity and it is entirely for profit in an unregulated environment. I saw a tent in a back yard advertised for $50 Aus. Not the way I would treat a guest in my home!

  4. Lara Dunston

    Hi Joanne – thanks for your thoughtful comment.

    Re Chinese tourists, I think part of the problem is that most (not all) are travelling in large tour groups, and here in Siem Reap, convoys of tour groups, and most travellers become the ‘ugly tourist’ when they’re in a group. For some reason people become louder and feel the need to have to shout over the top of each other – and over other travellers. When people first start to travel en masse, as the Chinese have in recent years, they’re drawn to tour groups as it’s easier, cheaper, less intimidating, and (for them) more fun. For the Chinese, it also suits their communitarian nature. Fortunately, in Siem Reap, we’re starting to see different kinds of independent Chinese travellers, from young couples to young groups of friends (generally travelling in threes or fours, male or female) and they tend to be a lot more sophisticated, quieter and well-mannered. In Siem Reap I actually find the Contiki groups far more objectionable – a mixed bunch of perpetually drunk 20-somethings.

    I did a story a while back for the Phnom Penh Post on the not-so-sharing sharing economy and I’m going to post a longer version of it here, because you’re right. I think couch-surfing is the only true ‘sharing’ phenomenon in that whole landscape of Uber and Airbnb and all the rest. It’s totally about profit. If it was about sharing that backyard tent would be $5 to cover overheads rather than $50, right? Thanks again for dropping by!

  5. Trish Burt

    So very WRONG. Here in Sydney we feel as if we’re being betrayed. Our City and State Legislators are making all of this legal. Sydney has experienced a 75.5% increase in Airbnb listings in the last six months. How can our Politicians treat us with such contempt?

  6. Lara Dunston

    Hi Trish, I hear you. We’ve heard the same thing all over the world. There have always been holiday rentals, scattered all over cities and towns and before Airbnb that happened very organically, so there was no ‘take-over’ of entire buildings, neighbourhoods and suburbs and that was fine. I think it can be a win-win – people settling in to a home get a local experience and the locals get to meet interesting foreign people. The difference between that organic growth and what Airbnb has done is their aggressive nature – hiring local people to aggressively target homeowners to start Airbnbs, so they can boast they have X number of listings in each destination. That aggressive has resulted in residential buildings being transformed into pseudo-hotels, removing the very appeal of them (the local-ness) in the first place to travellers, and whole neighbourhoods have been transformed into tourist ghettos. I don’t know if that’s happened in my old hometown of Sydney yet, but it’s completely destroyed the character of certain parts of city, Barcelona being the most obvious, and it’s very sad. What’s the current status in Sydney? The legislators really need to look carefully at what has happened in cities such as Barcelona before making it legal.

Post a new comment