‘Málaga for living, not surviving’: Locals protest tourism amid rising rents and gentrification

‘Málaga for living, not surviving’: Locals protest tourism amid rising rents and gentrification

Many in Málaga fear that their city is becoming a theme park for tourists. Activists say the post-pandemic tourism boom has pushed locals to the limit by distorting the rental market and gentrifying the city centre.

Marching under the slogan ‘Málaga for living, not surviving’, last weekend 15,000 people took to the streets to demand affordable housing and protest mass-tourism in the Costa del Sol city.

Bernardo, 39, tells Euronews Travel that he went “to support people who are trying to live with dignity in Málaga”.

For many, he says, the “situation is getting worse month by month due to the current policies totally geared towards tourist overcrowding.”

This follows an uptick in anti-tourism activism across Spain in recent months, with protests in Madrid, Barcelona and Granada, as well as the Canary and Balearic Islands. Further protests are planned in many parts of the country.

Anti-tourism stickers and graffiti are now common across Spain’s major cities, with references to ‘guiris’, a word usually used to describe northern Europeans, increasingly prevalent.

‘Since the COVID restrictions ended, the city's tourist boom has been enormous’

Yet the backlash comes amid record numbers of tourists arriving in Spain. Over 90 million international visitors are expected in 2024, according to research from Caixa Bank, and it’s not just the traditional tourist model of short-term hotel stays.

Málaga is no longer the entry point to explore resorts along the Costa del Sol but has become a resort in itself. With more Airbnbs and fewer hotels available, holidaymakers increasingly stay in what were once locals’ homes and businesses.

Since the pandemic in particular, tourism levels have ratcheted up. “Since the COVID restrictions ended, the city's tourist boom has been enormous,” Bernardo says.

In the increasingly online world, scores of remote workers - many of whom earn salaries locals could only dream of - have come to take advantage of Spain’s more affordable living costs.

But for locals their city is no longer affordable. According to figures from property website Idealista, average rents in Málaga have shot up by 16.5 per cent in a single year, with the supply of residential housing stock slowly sucked into the tourist accommodation sector.

Tourist accommodation such as Airbnb has been blamed for soaring rent prices in Málaga.
Tourist accommodation such as Airbnb has been blamed for soaring rent prices in Málaga. - Sindicato de Inquilinas e Inquilinos de Málaga

‘It's scary the speed at which things are moving’

Organised by the Málaga Tenants’ Union, protestors demanded rent price regulation and bans on tourist properties. A spokesperson for the group tells Euronews Travel that locals took to the streets “for the right to decent housing and in protest against the consequences of the tourist monoculture model in the city.”

The number of tourist rental flats has increased exponentially in Málaga in recent years. Figures cited by Spanish newspaper El País show that in 2016 there were just 846 registered in the city, but by 2024 that number has grown to more than 12,000. Málaga, like many major cities around Spain, is also home to hundreds if not thousands more unlicensed tourist flats.

Airbnbs and tourist accommodation are heavily concentrated in Málaga city centre. Data from Spain’s national statistics body, INE, shows that in some central neighbourhoods the proportion of housing dedicated to tourist accommodation is pushing 50 per cent.

“It's scary the speed at which things are moving,” Jose, 60, tells Euronews Travel. In the future, he fears, “it’s clear that the Malagueño will not be able to live in Málaga.”

In early June the town hall announced steps to limit new tourist rental licences to those with private entrances, and assured locals that it was working on further regulation. But many feel this doesn’t go far enough.

“The problem with this policy is that it’s too late,” the Tenants’ Union says.

“It’s an insufficient measure,” Bernardo agrees, “but it can be a first step if the granting of licences continues to be controlled.”

Government intervention is needed to control Málaga’s overtourism

Juan González Alegre, Professor of Economics at the University of Málaga, tells Euronews Travel that regulation needs to go beyond local authorities. “The solution to housing problems and even urbanisation and infrastructure strategies, broadly speaking, cannot be left to local administrations,” he explains.

The Málaga Tenants’ Union also sees the need for broader reform. “The housing problem in Málaga must be tackled politically at all three levels of government: state, regional and local. Without price regulation and a total and immediate ban [on tourist rental accommodation]… nothing will change,” their spokesperson says.

Following the protest Spain’s Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez has hinted at possible government intervention. “I think there’s beginning to be a consensus on this,” Alegre says - “it’s necessary to regulate tourist accommodation.”

Referring to recent proposals by Barcelona mayor Jaume Collboni to ‘eliminate’ tourist rentals from the Catalan city by 2029, Alegre adds that “these are policy areas where there are too many interdependencies, or externalities, as economists call them.

“What the mayor of Barcelona decides, in other words, affects the citizens of Sabadell or Cornellá, who can’t vote for him… The state and regions should become more involved in the problem.”

Protesters march against mass tourism in Málaga on 29 July 2024.
Protesters march against mass tourism in Málaga on 29 July 2024. - Sindicato de Inquilinas e Inquilinos de Málaga

‘Now the city centre is a theme park for tourists’

But for locals, this isn’t just about economics or rising rental prices. For many in Málaga, Spain’s mass-tourism model not only makes life unaffordable but slowly kills the city’s soul and gentrifies its culture.

Bernardo describes how in the city centre there are fewer and fewer local businesses. “There are hardly any butchers, fishmongers, bakeries, neighbourhood shops,” he says.

“Local festivals and traditions stop being something ‘proper’,” he adds, “and are replaced by spectacles in which the participants are stage actors for tourists to take photos of.”

“I’m not against tourism,” Jose says, “but there has to be a limit and control.”

“Now the city centre is a theme park for tourists,” he adds. “What was once “‘El Café Central’ in Málaga’s main square” - a local institution that closed its doors after 101 years - “today is an Irish pub full of tourists.”

“Maybe the whole city will become a mega theme park,” he fears.