Barcelona, capital of tourism

Barcelona has had a remarkably impressive run of growing the number of tourists that visit what is essentially a small, compact city.

Since the Olympics of 1992 the numbers of tourists has grown almost exponentially – from 2.45 million in 1993 to 7.44 million in 2012, with the number expected to break through the 8 million barrier with ease, and in fact, approach 9 million. And this number of visitors to a city that is constrained on all sides by the sea, the majestic Tibidabo, Montjuic and Badalona, meaning growth of the city must be within these predefined barriers. Not to mention the local population of some 1.5 million in the city proper, and up to 4 million in the metro zone.

The questions on everyone’s lips is: can the city sustain such mass tourism, and what can the city council do to offer solutions that fit with all the requirements of all the people who use the city on a daily basis? From the locals who depend on tourism for their businesses, to the residents of some of the many buildings that house tourist flats, to the working population who must cope with huge numbers of people during the summer months, to the tourists themselves. What kind of tourism does Barcelona want?

This is exactly what Barcelona Turisme have been asking themselves, and the residents of the city. Theirs is a fine balancing act between all aspects of com- mercialism and tourism, and of altering the makeup of a city that is both a living, breathing museum for visitors and locals alike, and one that is fast becoming a hotspot for innovation and business. For starters, the city council, in conjunction with the regional tourist board would like visitors to see the other offering of the area, away from Las Ramblas, El Gotico, Borne and Raval, otherwise known as the Old City or Ciutat Vella, and for people to explore the wider countryside.

However, first we must celebrate the fine progress the city has made in in- creasing the number of visitors threefold, and how the city has expanded its offering for this increase in tourists. But first some figures. This huge rise in tourism has been reflected in hotel occupancy, which has risen from 54% to 77% during the period 1993 – 2013, as well as overnight stays, which have increased fourfold. In 1993, 4.3 million tourists spent the night in Barcelona, while in 2013 more than 16 million tourists did so. As Sònia Recasens, Second Deputy Mayor of Barcelona and Vice-president of Turisme de Barcelona, says, “Tourism has been a major driving force in Barcelona’s growth and it is a transversal source of wealth that generates profits for other sectors.”


Barcelona has also become a reference point for attracting business tourism and for organising fairs and congresses, otherwise known as MICE tourism (meetings, incentives, conferences, exhibitions). This is reflected in the figures, in that over the last 20 years, this type of tourism has increased by 95%, in no small part down to the activities of FIRA, the city’s trade fair institution, based in Plaça Espanya. Active since 1932, FIRA a consortium made up by the Barcelona City Council, the Cat- alan Generalitat (government) and the Barcelona Chamber of Commerce, which combines public ownership with autonomous company management. Through its actions FIRA attracts 2.5 million visitors, 30,000 companies and over 70 shows/exhibitions per year, which brings the city and its surrounds over €2.5 billion of economic input. The depth of activity the company provides is a solid base for selling yet another offer of Barcelona, and helps to increase the visibility of the city in a business sense whilst encouraging repeat visits, if not for another event, for the city itself. In this way, FIRA is one of the best brand ambassadors the city could possibly have. As Jordi Clos, the Vice-president of Turisme de Barcelona, explains:

“Apart from being a driving force for entrepreneurial creativity and initiatives, tourism is currently acting as a lifeboat for the city’s economic activities.”

Barcelona has also managed to create a huge sector where before there was only a small to medium sized one, and this is with the advent of major cruise line tourism in the region. From humble beginnings, the Port of Barcelona is now the 4th biggest in the world in terms of passenger numbers, and this is only set to get bigger as the city welcomes one of the worlds biggest ships – Royal Caribbean’s Allure of the Seas – into its port as its home base. This means Barcelona will see thousands of new visitor faces throughout the whole year, avoiding one the huge pitfalls of tourism, that being seasonality and fluctuating visitor numbers, which adversely affects employment, revenue and makes planning for all entities difficult. In the last 20 years, Barcelona has received some 25-million cruise-ship passengers, and this sector has experienced a growth of 1,485%. In 1993, 152,082 tourists passed through the Port of Barcelona, whereas in 2012 the figure was just un- der 2.5 million.

However, the airport is still the main entrance to the city for international tourists. The number of tourists arriving at El Prat Airport has increased by 263%, the total number of tourists passing through the airport in the last twenty years is almost 450 million. In terms of tourist nationality, most visitors to the city come from the United Kingdom and Ireland, rising from 137,494 to 661,686 people since 1993. Second place goes to visitors from the United States, whose numbers have increased by nearly 200%, highlighting the draw of the city worldwide, and also the importance of the cruise and MICE businesses in drawing repeat visitors here.

Total international tourism has increased by 285% in the last 20 years, which makes Barcelona the fifth-biggest European tourist destination, in terms of the number of overnight stays. The city has climbed 10 places in this ranking since 1993. The number of hotel places in the city has also increased, especially in terms of luxury hotels, and for the 1993-2012 period, the number of available hotel places in Barcelona increased by 148.6%, rising from 26,191 in 1993 to 65,100 in 2013.