Catalonia's Secession and its Implications for Tourism
Barcelona has consistently been ranked as one of the world’s most visited cities, with its transport infrastructure and economic ties firmly embedded within the European system. The city is considered to be the crown jewel of Catalonia, a region that has persistently demonstrated fierce autonomy from the Spanish government in Madrid.
However, to the people of Catalonia, autonomy seems to be insufficient and they have once again decided to push for independence. This effort culminated in an illegal referendum on secession being held in October 2017, with Catalonia subsequently declaring independence. Throughout this period, clashes between protestors and police coloured the streets of Barcelona, resulting in travel to the city falling by 15% and also precipitating a 20% drop in hotel bookings through to the end of the year.
Political tensions between Spain and Catalonia and between those for and against independence are now at an all time high - a worrying development for those with plans to visit Barcelona and the region.
Is Barcelona still a welcoming place?
Pro and anti independence protesters jostle for space and volume in the Catalan capital. The city’s tourist attractions and high streets are being disrupted as demonstrations congregate at or cross these areas as they hold immense significance for Catalonian history and its people. Public transport services are also likely to bear the brunt of protests, especially if things get ugly.
This is a tricky time to visit Barcelona. Apart from the divisive political climate, the policies of Barcelona’s current mayor, Ada Colau, are decidedly anti-tourist. Named as the world’s most ‘radical mayor’, Colau has decried the influx of tourists as they have caused rents to rise and streets to be crowded. She wants Barcelona to remain firmly in the domain of its inhabitants and not be swept towards decisions because of a tourist-first imperative. In essence, she will not allow Barcelona to become like Venice.
Colau has suspended the issuing of hospitality licences to hotels despite the city sitting on 15,000 such requests. Additionally, Airbnb has been repeatedly fined for facilitating the illegal renting of apartments without proper paperwork. There are reports that locals have smashed the windows of 5-star hotels and stories of gangs slashing the tyres of tour buses.
These atavistic tendencies are worrying and it is likely that visitor numbers will decline. This is a sad development for a city that has managed to capture a large portion of the European tourism sector - an industry that has undoubtedly contributed to the region’s economic prosperity.
It is quite unnerving that people in Catalonia are using their economic success as a reason to argue for secession whilst at the same time decrying the tourists that come and spend in the city’s bars, restaurants and shops. The people of Catalonia should take heed lest it results in a long term decline in economic growth as a result of nationalist and inward-looking tendencies.
How did we get here
The history of the dispute, like most others, goes way back.
After the fall of Franco’s fascist regime in 1975, nationalist sentiments were awakened as Spain moved towards the establishment of a unitary state. Catalonia was granted autonomy and taxation powers in 2006. This has allowed the region to more effectively chart its future - Catalonia is Spain’s most prosperous region, contributing 19% of the country’s GDP. Catalonia also pays more to the federal government in taxes than it receives back in subsidies and transfers. Thus, it is easy to empathise with the argument that Catalans are receiving the short end of the stick by remaining in Spain.
People in Catalonia identify themselves first as Catalans and secondly as Spanish (some even consider their European identity to be stronger than their Spanish one). Furthermore, the Catalan language despite having developed in close proximity to Spanish, belongs to the Occitan branch of the Indo-European family of languages whilst Spanish belongs to the Iberian-Romance branch.
Catalan literature and culture also flourished in the 19th century at a time when the Spanish Empire was grappling with the loss of foreign territories and accumulation of debts. This has decisively shaped and pushed Catalan identity away from Spain and these consequences still persist into the 21st century.
What is this referendum business about
Armed with the aforementioned economic and cultural imperatives, the Oct 1 referendum was held to give the Catalonian government a bargaining chip in the push for independence.
However, it is widely considered to be illegal, and its results are disputed amongst most political commentators outside of Catalonia. For one, even though 90% of voters cast their ballots in favour of secession, turnout was only 43%. This means that a large portion of the Catalan population (a silent majority that is anti-independence), has boycotted the illegal referendum.
What will happen to Catalonia if it goes ‘independent’?
1. Many companies have announced that they are relocating their HQs and operations out of Catalonia and into other regions, like neighbouring Valencia
2. Catalonia will have to pay off (at least in some part) the huge €72.2 billion debt it has accumulated
3. The EU has said that an independent Catalonia would cease to be part of the EU. This will severely damage the Catalonian economy as the new country will lose access to the single market, the EU’s external trade agreements and participation in the Schengen Agreement.
The current state of affairs
At the time of writing, the Spanish government has invoked Article 155 which gives it the power to suspend the regional autonomy of Catalonia and depose its leaders.
The ‘ex’ Catalonian government headed by Carles Puigdemont is currently held up in Brussels (for god knows what reason). However, they have explicitly stated that they are not claiming asylum or trying to set-up a government in exile. The local Ecuadorian embassy should be taking note of this.
The US, the UK, France, Germany and 68 other sovereign states have explicitly stated that they will not recognise an independent Catalonia.
An uncertain future
The secession of Catalonia comes on the back of a wave of secessionist referendums that have taken place in 2017. Earlier this year, Scotland tried but failed to leave the United Kingdom. Kurdistan also proclaimed independence (albeit under more understandable circumstances) but has since then failed to protect its territory against the Iraqi Armed Forces. Baghdad has decided to end the status of quasi-independence that Iraqi Kurdistan has enjoyed since 1991. The Northern Italian states of Lombardy and Veneto have voted for greater autonomy.
These echoes of separatism injects an striking degree of uncertainty into the future of tourism. Apart the immediate disruptions protests bring to cities and countries, the long term implications of anti-integration and anti-foreigner sentiment brings the primary objective of tourism (the act of trying to understand each other better) into question.
Nevertheless, while the situation in Barcelona remains uncertain, protests are still peaceful. Visitors should however, take note that peaceful demonstrations can turn confrontational and don't even dare ask 'Is Catalonia a Country?'
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