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May 31, 2020

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Spaniards reclaim cities in the absence of tourists

IN Barcelona, Laia Torra and her daughter stroll peacefully in Park Guell. At the same time, Mladen savors the silence of the marble alleys of Dubrovnik while Fabiana soaks up the calm of old Lisbon.

These three corners of three cities, known for the hustle and clamor of tourists, are unusually tranquil. The lockdowns caused by the coronavirus pandemic may not have been universally popular but they have had the effect of alleviating, at least temporarily, some of the ills associated with tourism, notably the overcrowding of city centers and a rapid rise in prices and rents.

Park Guell, a UNESCO World Heritage Site and one of the great legacies of modernist architect Antoni Gaudi, is currently for the exclusive use of the residents of the area.

“All my childhood, I played in this park but I never came with my daughter because it was impossible to do anything, there were too many people,” said Torra.

Today, the 39-year-old sports teacher is visiting the park with a friend and her children. At their disposal lies one of the most coveted places in the park — a long undulating bench decorated with colorful mosaics, overlooking a wonderful panorama of the city, with the Mediterranean on the horizon. The two women normally never go there as it is always swarmed by visitors looking for the best angles for the seemingly obligatory Barcelona selfie.

“It’s wonderful, it’s like going back 20 years,” said Torra as the kids gallivant on a scooter and bike. “We know it’s temporary but we have to take advantage of it.”

The “Tourist, go home” signs which had flourished in recent years have lost their raison d’etre, at least for a while. After protests in recent summers against the partying and incivility of some tourists, the former fishermen’s quarter of Barceloneta has been transformed into a gigantic open-air gymnasium, where locals come to run, swim and surf during the authorized hours.

“Normally I don’t go to these beaches,” said Emma Prades, a 43-year-old psychologist.

“Now it’s more tempting. And the water is cleaner.”

The 42,000 inhabitants of the Croatian city of Dubrovnik, the “pearl of the Adriatic” where some of the television series “Game of Thrones” was filmed, are also rediscovering beaches which had become overrun by tourists.

The gigantic cruise ships, with their thousands of passengers, no longer anchor in the small harbour. It is a double-edged sword, bringing peace and calm as well as an anxiety over the future of the economy.

“We have been able to relax a bit during those two, almost three months,” says Mladen Kriz, a 43-year-old telecom technician and father of two whose wife is a tour guide. “This summer, we will be able to swim quietly in town. At the same time, without tourists it is a bit empty. A lot of people live on that here. How will we live without tourists?”

In Lisbon, amid the steep alleyways of the popular Alfama district, Paulo da Silva shares this concern.

“It’s really sad, there is nothing good in all this,” the 45-year-old said. “Foreigners revived this neighborhood and now everything could halt again at any moment.”

In the center of the Portuguese capital, Fabiana Pavel, an Italian architect who campaigns against mass tourism, is enjoying the peace of Bairro Alto, known for its nightlife and its fado concerts.

“We will miss this era,” she says. “I am not against tourism but I am against its excesses. This crisis is proof that it is dangerous to rely completely on one single industry.”

Marti Cuso, a 30-year-old social worker, has long opposed the tourist invasion of the center of Barcelona, where he lives.

“We have been warning for years that all this could be shattered,” he said.

While other districts are awakening after the confinement, the shutters remain down in the Gothic quarter and on Las Ramblas street.

“Today, unfortunately, we are seeing the consequences,” says Cuso. “A tourist monoculture has created a desert.”


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