A city in pain
Original title ‘Ciutat Dolguda’
By Marina Garcés
Translation by Daniel Beizsley
The journey home from Zaragoza feels long even if the train ride isn’t. After giving several hours of classes during the day I take the bus to Delicias station, pass through security and board the train to Sants station in Barcelona. It’s still winter and I hope to see Orion in the chaotic sky over Plaça Lesseps — the only complete constellation one can find above the city. When we were kids, grandma would teach us to locate the giant Orion in the sky so that it would protect and watch over us. A cousin of mine has it tattooed on his back. The escalator moves slowly. A girl has left her suitcase by her side but it’s also in the way of everyone else. She realises and tries to move it. I gesture to help but she doesn’t notice me. She turns to one of her friends and says, in French I think, “I don’t care…I’ll make like a tourist.”
The tourist is a parody of indifference. Well-travelled, they spend time and money to discover a world, a city, a people — but are simultaneously distant from them. The tourist is a body that bumps into yours and yet does not feel you, a glance that meets yours but does not see you. Tourists believe their nocturnal screams go unnoticed and that their urine does not smell. They consume voraciously and without ever realising the effects of their presence. The lobbyists tell us they are essential — indeed, what would Barcelona live off were it not for the tourists? It is a question underpinned by a sense of humiliation, and one that forgets that the tourist is a recent invention — and one that is not compatible with our lives.
In 2014 I was asked to organise a conference on tourism and its relationship with the city and its culture. It was May, just before the first outbreaks of protest by Barceloneta residents that Summer. I didn’t know whether to accept the proposal because it’s not a subject within my area of expertise but I also felt the inescapable need to begin to search for arguments, to give shape and meaning to the unease that was being generated by tourism. The disquiet I felt then hasn’t stopped growing and now calls for a radical critique and organised mobilisation. However, this unease could easily descend into nostalgia and muddled thinking based on a longing for an authentic life somewhere between the timeless before and the local, and the unnatural and the global. There has never been a port city on the Mediterranean that hasn’t been a destination for people coming and going, for arrivals and departures (and much less Barcelona) — but how is mass tourism in its current form changing the city?
This was the question the conference posed and out of it came the response: the tourism industry is our extractive industry and the city, and all of its material or intangible contents, are a resource to be exploited through intense extractivism.
Joan Gaspar, hotel owner, head of the Barcelona tourist board and ex-president of Barça claimed in an interview with El Periodico in November 2013 that:
“20 years ago Barcelona was a city of businesses and provincial traditions. At that time the concept of leisure didn’t exist — people didn’t come to Barcelona for their holidays and so at the weekends and during the Summer the city was empty. Now it’s the opposite. The tourist board managed to sell the city in its entirety and now people come to relax and enjoy themselves. We have an exceptional city, which certainly helps, but the board and the mayors beginning with Maragall all contributed over the years.”
We have sold the city in its entirety. The expression is literal because the entirety is not just the sum of its parts (the streets, the offices, the inhabitants etc) but the value of the Barcelona brand itself. Who remembers today when Barcelona was a ‘model’ of development and social cohesion? The city of differences, of tolerance? Today we say it is a smart city that searches for new ways to sell itself as an international tourist capital in all its guises. This is the reality of the smart city, the brand city — the dead city. The differences are there in the form of ever growing inequalities. The tolerance is still there, converted into an indifference toward those with the resources to do as they wish. This knowledge feeds the big companies more than it contributes to the collective who are left to suffer from the logic of expropriation and extractivism.
Around the world extractivism is emerging as a new method of colonialisation. It no longer takes place between nations and territories but between investment capital and resources. Normally we associate the term extractivism with the intensive exploitation of natural resources in the old colonies of Africa and Latin America. But we should also consider the city as a natural resource and its culture as intensively exploitable — not only its urban space but its housing market and local businesses. The city is an intensively exploitable resource while at the same time being our common space — the space in which we lead our lives. If it weren’t like this, it would be enough for investors to construct giant theme parks as they do so in parts of China — but we know it’s never enough. What the tourism industry serves up is the possibility to observe and participate in the shared lives of others albeit in an enclosed and controlled manner.
Tourism has traditionally been a colonising force due to the way in which it exploits and dominates the territories in which it arrives. It establishes inequalities and distinctions between centres and peripheries, rich and poor, safe and dangerous zones. Its result is the standardisation of experiences and the conversion of any activity — from eating out, bathing in the sea, walking in the mountains, learning about history or architecture, dancing or visiting a museum — into a tourist activity.
Beyond being a colonising force, tourism is extractivism because its replicates the same conditions of economic exploitation that we find elsewhere. If we compare the analysis of Alberto Acosta from the Latin American Social Sciences Institute(FLACSO) who has defined the features of extractivism we can see, just like in a mirror, a portrait of what is happening to Barcelona. According to Acosta, extractivism can be characterised as: 1) the production of economic dependence through a reliance on one dominant activity while also preventing the development of others 2) the creation of a “voracious effect” that sees the extractivist industry quickly run out of resources and then destroys itself 3) as ‘impoverishing wealth’ through the generation of huge incomes that are unequally distributed, and with it, any understanding of wealth 4) the erosion of a diverse and evenly distributed economic fabric that transforms citizens into passive consumers, or one in which individuals are rent seekers dominated by clientelist attitudes 5) the establishment of authoritarian politics through opaque decisions that are taken by the political class and managed by investors 6) the creation of ‘special economic zones’ outside of legal frameworks that displace public supervision and with it the ability to take collective decisions.
One only needs to review these factors and compare them with what is wrong with cities dedicated to mass tourism to obtain a devastating portrait of its consequences. In the face of these arguments the supposed benefits crumble. In response, what many governments do (both national and local) is to then justify and understate tourism’s impacts. Even supposedly progressive governments fall into this trap using the argument that it generates employment. Yet Barcelona’s residents have already sounded off the first alarms. In the shadow of the corpse of Venice there is a part of Barcelona that refuses to die by being devoured. Paris has joined and no longer wishes to follow the destiny of its fellow cities. Meanwhile, precarity continues to expel people from the city and those who struggle to get to the end of the month resort to re-renting their homes through Airbnb while the rents continue to rise, the young are forced to flee leaving the men and women to clean, serve food, drive in traffic and prostitute themselves.
Mass tourism offers a daily stream of apocalyptic images in real time. The iconic photo of a cruise ship entering the canals of Venice like a post-modern giant is maybe the most dramatic of visual representations. The images of the hyper-constructed Iberic coastline, the devastation of forests caused by insatiable wild mushroom pickers, the queues of people who go skiing in mild winters on artificial snow, the bodies of the prostitutes in La Boqueriamarket and in the Olympic Port, the litres of oil that leak from cruise ships whose passengers then flood the city in search of souvenirs, the young that jump off hotel balconies during nights out, the local artisan products that are made in China and the boats that begin to cross the Artic and offer tours taking advantage of climate change. Far from the democratisation of travel and the possibility of reciprocal understanding between worlds, cultures and people, the images that tourism generate seem to confirm the end of the world, or the end of one particular world. These images are now inseparable from environmental and social crises and now form part of its expression.
The time to think of individual solutions for individual problems has passed. Beyond a solely technocratic or expert gaze it is necessary to shift perspectives and invent ways of dealing with the challengesthat the global tourist industry creates. We still think that tourism is a problem of the rich and indeed the wealthy from all over the world compete with each other to see who can consume the most while leaving whatever’s left to the rest of us. But it is precisely this displacement that changes everything when we realise that tourism is a problem that predominantly affects the poor. Joan Martínez Alier has said that the time has now come to ditch the notion that ecology and its preservation of nature is solely a subject for the most developed countries. Facing this now anachronistic presumption, he talks of the need to develop an ecology of the poor, because it is exactly the poor who are the ones that need to protect the resources on which their lives depend. Should this political ecology be based on a purism only concerned with maintaining the authenticity of nature intact? Quite the opposite — an ecology of the poor implies the transformation of life against its own destruction through the reappropriation and care of common places and resources.
Similarly, we can think of an approach to ending the extractivist mass-tourism industry that doesn’t depend on elitism and nostalgia, but is underpinned by a radical critique of the idea of limitless development and growth. In both ecology and tourism, the aim must be the reframing of the meaning of wealth. The extractivist industry makes the rich richer while making the rest of us poorer. It isn’t necessary to live in abject misery to perceive and suffer from the impoverishment of this wealth and it isn’t necessary to go to the countryside, to the sea or to the mountains to feel the effects of the environment’s destruction. Nor is it necessary to bump into tourists with their suitcases in the stairs of the metro to understand that the effects of tourism are being keenly felt as a result of its absorption of public and common spaces.
As a response to the neighbourhood struggles against tourism that have gained momentum in recent years, the powerful and their commentariat have labelled it tourismphobia. A new disparaging term given to the war of the poor against the poor — neighbours that can’t pay the rent versus tourists that can’t afford a hotel. The indigenous against the outsiders. Those who live well always accuse the poor of being racist but immigration and cheap tourism arrive in the same places and concentrate in the same neighbourhoods. The working families of the Gòtic, Barceloneta and Poble Sec neighbourhoods have received the majority of immigration of recent years and live cosmopolitanly with the low-cost tourists every day of the year. And if they don’t get used to the night parties, the hipster bars and the souvenir shops then they are branded as xenophobes and racists. The phobia against the tourist is a rage against predatory capitalism that shares the benefits and costs of its activities in the most unequal ways.
July 2017. We spend a week in Rome trying to show our children a part of our past. We imagine ourselves as the type of tourist who pretends not to be and instead feigns annoyance with the others. There is nobody outside. It’s too hot to walk, and more so to go to one of Rome’s great monuments. If in Barcelona we think that we have reached the ceiling of tourist numbers then Rome demonstrates there can always be more. The limits of how many a city can support seem extendable and infinitely so. One afternoon in the suffocating heat, we take refuge in the book shop Fahrenheit 451, a refreshing lair of tranquillity in Camp dei Fiori. In the square they are collecting the leftovers from the market and as always, there is a dry bunch of flowers at the feet of the statue of the bookseller Giordano Brun who is adorned with a long beard in the style of Karl Marx. The bookshop owner is chatty and spends time with us. Years before some friends and I held a talk in this very same shop. The small journal, Le Nubbi, has now disappeared — dragged down by precarity. The owner tells us about the few corners left in the city where one can still lose oneself. “I’m watching the city die, but do you know what I think? She is stronger than us and despite everything we do to her, she thinks ‘you won’t finish me off that easily.’” The bookseller looks at my son, who is now 10 and is beginning to look like an adolescent and through a bearded smile he says “before your beard grows, come back. It won’t be long.” It strikes me at that moment that the promise of a homecoming, imagined or not, is our way of making a life-commitment to a city when we don’t want to let it die.