Feeling the heat in Barcelona

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The last time I was in Barcelona my lasting impression was one of visceral disgust as I sat at El Prat Airport on the only patch of ground I could find that wasn’t covered in rubbish  – a cleaners’ strike vividly demonstrating how those under-appreciated workers help us to maintain the appearance of civilisation. After five days of inaction, the airport resembled a tip: bins were overflowing with burger wrappers and bulging nappy bags, while the stench from the toilets suggested an outbreak of dysentery.  It was pretty shocking. In terms of abiding memories, the Sagrada Familiar and the mouth-watering tapas didn’t stand a chance.

Now, just back from ibtm world, my clearest memory of Barcelona is a size-eleven boot removing the wing mirror from the cab I have just climbed into, while the terrified driver begs me – and my equally dumbstruck colleagues - to get out. ‘You must go. He is very bad, man. I’m sorry’. No need to apologise, amigo. We’re off.  The reason for this impromptu act of vandalism? Another strike, this time by taxi drivers over the presence of Über and Cabify. Our man -  working for Cabify-  had pulled up outside the Fira Gran Via exhibition centre, where a group of heavies were waiting to ensure the fare was aborted. The mirror was detached with brisk efficiency and the dozen or so police officers nearby must have all blinked at the same time, because none intervened. Bad luck, that.

Barcelona doesn’t need this. Not now. It adds to the impression of a city – famed for its cool, insouciant charm –  increasingly at odds with itself, and not just politically. Sure, visitor numbers are down following Catalonia’s decision to declare independence, and if local media reports are to be believed, companies headquartered in Barcelona have started moving out. But the city which has enjoyed a colossal tourism boom also seems to be doing its best to deter visitors. There is growing hostility towards mass tourism – some of it justifiable, no doubt - from disgruntled residents. A small group have taken direct action – smashing coach windows etc -  to make their point.

There has always be an undertow to Barcelona. The smell of cannabis as you walk through the side streets, and the endless entreaties to patronise a ‘titty bar’ reminds you how gentrified and hygienic other major cities have become by comparison. It still has an edge to it, which, I suppose, adds to its many charms. But right now it seems to be a city where all the stresses and strains of the globalised economy seem to be coming to a head, where the friction between rich and poor, visitor and local, traditional and app-based service provider, appears to be reaching boiling point.

It remains to be seen how all of this will affect the city’s business events industry. The local newspapers are full of rumours and innuendo about the levels of ‘unease’ at GSMA – the association behind the enormous Mobile World Congress, which has been held in Barcelona since 2006. The organisation recently issued a statement saying they were, ‘closely monitoring’ political developments in the city. If they decide they’ve seen enough it will be a huge blow to Barcelona, both economically and in terms of its overall prestige. I’m sure city leaders will do everything in their power to keep GSMA happy. But will it be enough? And if not, will others follow?

James Lancaster
Written By
James Lancaster

AMI editor James Lancaster is a familiar face in the meetings industry and international association community. Since joining AMI in 2010, he has gained a reputation for asking difficult questions and getting lost in convention centres. Proofer, podcaster, and panellist - in his spare time, James likes to walk, read, listen to music, and drink beer.


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