Thursday, May 05, 2016

The One-Eyed Monster Of Tourism

Ada Colau is the mayor of Barcelona. In 2001 she appeared in a comedy series called "Two Plus One". It was to mark the start and end of Ada's acting career. The critics panned it, no one watched it and a second series was not commissioned.

Apart from this brief excursion into television, it is hard to identify what Ada has ever done. There are plenty of politicians of whom one can ask this, but career politicians are generally sustained and promoted via a political party system. Ada, on the other hand, appears never to have operated via such an apparatus. She's a professional activist.

One doesn't question her good intentions. She was propelled into public view not by television but by her having been the driving force behind the association for those affected by mortgage difficulties and evictions. Ultimately, and as part of the new wave of political formations in Spain, she was involved with the founding of Guanyem in Barcelona and stood as mayor for Barcelona En Comú, an amalgam of groupings that included Podemos, at last year's election.

Given her activism in relation to housing and so also social and living conditions, one can understand that these subjects are to the fore of her agenda in the city. Related to them is the whole issue of accommodation for tourism - holiday lets, if you like. Earlier this month the city's council approved one of its latest prohibitions. Under this, no more tourist apartments can be made available unless existing ones are made unavailable, and then only in areas away from the centre of the city. (In Barcelona, as in the rest of Catalonia, private apartments can be openly and legally marketed for holiday rental under Catalonian legislation.)

The issue of tourist apartments and so of a sense that parts of Barcelona are being overwhelmed by tourism is of a scale that is far greater than in Palma. It is very much a political issue, with the more extreme elements to both left and right making capital out of it. The new prohibition is not totally unreasonable, given the rapid growth of tourist accommodation. If nothing else, it offers some potential breathing space.

However, it is part of a wider policy on tourism, and it is this which betrays an impression that Ada, a product of her activism, is one-eyed. The eye which is turned towards tourism doesn't like what it sees.

Barely a week seems to pass without there being some announcement from the city council that concerns tourism. In the middle of March, for instance, it was stated that a moratorium on any new tourism development would be extended by a year. Against the backdrop of prohibition and moratoria, it is said that a total of 38 projects have been put on ice or abandoned at a loss of some 3,000 million euros of investment. It might be noted, though, that not everything has gone by the board: Meliá expects to open its five-star Me by Meliá hotel in the city centre in 2018.

But it is the latest announcement which exposes Ada's touristic myopia more than others. She is planning on taxing visitors to the city - not for staying in accommodation, as they are already taxed for this, but for simply entering city limits. It would be a tax on sightseeing. So, while tourists are all seeing in Barcelona, Ada sees nothing other than a further way of extracting a tithe from them and of demonising tourists because of her one-eyed view of reality. More than this, it is a crackpot idea. Ada might believe that logistically tourists on excursion coaches can be fleeced for a euro a day (or whatever the tariff might be), but what of other tourists? Discriminatory her tax would most certainly be.

The mere announcement of an intention to tax ratchets up further the noise directed towards a perceived villain - tourism. Ada's idea might well appeal to certain politicians in Mallorca with equally negative perspectives that pander in no small part to a xenophobic minority. Such attitudes exist because, as with Ada, these politicians are blinded by their activist philosophies.

Yet the narrative emerging from elements of the left reveals nothing of an appreciation of where tourism in its mass form came from. Of course tourism is now corporate and capitalist. Of course it is a long, long way from the 1950s, but the origins of this mass movement of people were firmly socialist, developed by pioneers such as Gerard Blitz and Vladimir Raitz, the latter especially. Tourism was for the ordinary man. It was to be affordable and cross-cultural, a means of fostering understanding in the aftermath of war and persecution.

Yes, there are excesses. Yes, there probably should be limits. Yes, there should be co-existence between visitors and residents, but this becomes less achievable because of a wilful, one-eyed ignorance of tourism.

No comments: