Just the other day I was talking to some friends about tourists in Madrid, especially the center of Madrid. The downtown of the capital has been almost completely tranformed into something that hardly resembles el centro I knew from the early 90s. For better and for worse. For better because twenty-five years ago, it looked so rundown and foresaken someone once told me they need to have a torch set to it.
Instead, the city slowly began to turn it around as a way of enticing people back and also as way of refloating the local economy. It’s basically another example of the generalized gentrification process that is impacting many urban centers in Europe. I call it more locally, the Chueca Effect, the gay neighborhood which got the ball rolling I’d say about fifteen years ago; the neighboring areas have followed suit ever since. This has led to a much healthier, much more attractive district, with pretty and modern restaurants, pedestrian-friendly side-streets, and economically viable downtown.
It’s also led to other things. For worse, I say, because streets like the Gran Vía, once the aorta of Madrid; once a thoroughfare that used to be lined with immensely glorious movie theaters, outdoor cafés, and fancy stores; once a road where Hemingway would race from the Hotel Florida to the Telefonica building to send off his reports on the Spanish Civil War, have now become a haven for lowcost shopping. H&M is a somewhat upscale option, if that is any indicator. Some of those old traditonal establishments have been muscled out, removing that special atmosphere that characterized the city. The word “tapas bar” was never used here until about ten years ago, so my suggestion is that you avoid the places that go by that description.
The spledidly attractive Hotel Florida, designed by the proliferic Antonio Palacios but razed in 1964, was located in a square called Callao which more or less represents the mid-point of Gran Vía. In the last couple of years massive electronic billboards have been thrown up in an attempt, as far as I can tell, to turn it into a mini Times Square. Why? Your guess is as good as mine. I think it looks ridiculous.
Regardless of one’s opìnion, there is no denying that Spain’s tourism sector, while always quite competitive, is once again extremely robust. The numbers are there, and they’re growing. It is jockeying for position with France and the United States for the number one spot. In 2016, it virtually tied the United States with something like 75.6 million visitors in one year. Forecasts say it will top 80 million in 2017. And when tourists do come, they are so glad they did, they often return. One report claimed 8 out of 10 visitors come back. Those are incredibly positive numbers from a business standpoint. Almost beyond belief.
While the tourism boom has become the talk of town, this should not really come as any surprise. It has been a major industry in this country ever since the 1960s when Spain, still under the fairly tight grip of Franco’s regime, began to understand the enormous benefits its natural resources could provide. That is, endless hours of sunny weather and an enviable supply of sand. There are some 3,000 beaches that make up the 7,900kms of coast. Right now tourism constitutes officially about 12% of the GNP (I get the feeling it’s higher), and whether the Spanish like it or not, it essentially rescued the country from total mayhem during the Great Recession.
This makes some Spaniards uncomfortable because I think they’d prefer that their country run on a different kind of fuel. “What would you prefer?” I ask. “Building two million homes no one is going to buy?” They know the answer, but I can also share their frustration. I would probably tire from all the constant activity if I lived in one of those neighborhoods, not to mention pay the increasing prices that have forced some tenants out of their barrios. I would certainly be fed up with dealing with the massive unbridled partying that poisons some of those seaside towns.
So, yes, there is a price to pay for taking the country down this road, especially in places where the presence of tourism is constant, like the coast, the islands or the the middle of Madrid or Barcelona in general. Some places are trying to do something about it. Spain’s second largest city has already taken measures to curtail the almost unstoppable “air bnb” fad, and licenses to build new hotels have been banned temporarily. The belief is, there are already plenty of beds available.
Some citizens have taken the matter into their own hands, as pockets of anti-tourism movements have formed to lash out at the overwhelming numbers. They have made their presence known through graffiti messages, open-air insults and, at times, violence. Just last month, a group of angered locals slashed the tires of a sightseeing tour bus in Barcelona, frightening the bejesus out of foreigners who thought they were under attack by some Islamic terrorist group. It was an understandable fear given the times, but to their relief, that was the extent of the group’s intentions. The same kind of fortune cannot be said for 13 innocent people who faced a very different kind of menace on what should have been a quiet August afternoon.
You see, by pure coincidence, I was starting my first post in months and was writing on the subject of tourism, when I got a whatsapp from my nephew back in CT asking about what was up in Barcelona. “I dunno. I’ll check.”
Most of the world knows the story by now. It’s been a terrible shock to many. To me too, but only to a point. The way things have been going in Europe the last couple of years, it made sense that Spain might be soon targeted. Plus, there were warning signs. The Spanish security forces and anti-terrorist forces have thwarted a number of alleged planned attacks over the years, which shows they are effective, efficient and just plain on the ball. But it also proves the radicals were out to act, and no matter how good you are at containing the terrorists, it’s never easy to predict that on a Thursday afternoon in an ordinary day, they will decide to strike.
Yesterday, Barcelona felt the immediate effects of the latest episode of a recent wave of horrid attacks on European cities where vans are used to mow down pedestrians, in many cases, tourists. 13 were killed and a hundred injured after maybe a minute of pure terror. The technique is brutal. The damage, immense. The pain, uncalculable.
The effect…well that’s a different story. By this morning, the Ramblas, the beautiful street where the atrocity took place, appeared to be returning to normal. There is no better message to send out to the terrorists and the world.