OPINION - Barcelona could learn a thing or two from London about how to treat tourists

 (Shutterstock / TTstudio)
(Shutterstock / TTstudio)

For years, the elderly residents of La Salut, a neighbourhood in Barcelona, have complained about being unable to get home because the number 116 bus was always too full of tourists. They were flocking to the area to see Park Güell, the cluster of mosaic-covered buildings, staircases and public squares designed like a fairytale village by the legendary architect Antoni Gaudí.

Now they are going to have the service all to themselves as the city council has arranged to have the route deleted online. They’ve made it invisible. While other cities are desperate for tourists, Barcelona has so many of them that it can afford a bit of subterfuge.

Local César Sánchez laughed at the idea at a time when other places go to any lengths to attract holidaymakers. “We’re amazed that the measure has been so effective,” he said. Sánchez, who has been campaigning for eight years for his council to address the problem, joked: “The next thing we need to do is to get the whole of Park Güell removed from Google Maps.”

Barcelona has a complicated relationship with its tourists. The city mandarins have banned Airbnb, they’ve banned Uber, and if you get caught taking a sneaky selfie outside the Sagrada Familia, you can be fined for slowing down traffic.

If you’re thinking of visiting Barcelona, you better hurry up — next time you might not be able to find it on a map

At the same time, the council has also taken care to look after the commercial infrastructure of the city, protecting the artisans, retailers and artists who contribute so much to its cultural IP. If you walk around the El Born neighbourhood, which abuts La Rambla, one of the busiest tourist streets in Europe, you’ll discover a world that looks as though it was defined by people with hearts as well as heads. That’s because it was.

The area is protected by tight local legislation, meaning that you cannot trade here unless you’re contributing to the cultural welfare of the area. In this labyrinth of alleyways, which at one time formed the old artisan quarter, you’ll find galleries, museums, tailors, cafes and chi-chi junk shops rather than international outposts of Uniqlo, McDonalds or Tesco. It’s called cultural zoning, and in Barcelona they take it very seriously.

For some, Barcelona’s greatest attraction might be its seemingly exponential beach, which you can easily cycle along for miles and miles; but its most important inland star couldn’t be anyone other than Gaudí, the monumentally bad-tempered Catalan genius responsible for so many of the city’s beautiful buildings.

You can also visit some of the houses he designed, and it is here where you can see his bewildering talent up close, seeing how he soared under the protective canopy of independently wealthy benefactors.

Because of the nature of what he achieved, defining Spanish modernism in a way that will be forever revered, every twist and turn in Casa Batlló, Casa Mila and Casa Vicens — jewels in a city defined by beauty — is testament not just to his own genius, but also the city’s own ambition.

But if you’re considering a trip to Barcelona, you better hurry up because if its ambivalent attitude towards tourists doesn’t improve, next time you go you might not be able to visit them at all. And if the council have their way, you might not even be able to find them.

In London, I feel we’re more accepting of tourists than ever. Years ago, “bloody tourists” was such an oft-used phrase that it became a cliché. I was in a fashion store in Mayfair back in the Eighties, while my friend Oliver bought a coat (he was abusing my discount). Outside, a comically dressed American tourist wearing a brightly coloured flat cap saw an equally brightly coloured flat cap in their window, and decided he wanted to try it on.

To keep out undesirables, the front door was locked, and as the tourist was obviously not the kind of person the shop assistant wanted wearing their hats, he wouldn’t let him in. The tourist eventually gave up, and quite sensibly wandered off. Today I feel he would have been treated with far more respect: he would have been able to find it on Google Maps.

Dylan Jones is the Evening Standard’s editor-in-chief