Working online has its perks. So I took advantage of being able to live anywhere in the world and went to Barcelona. I thought it would be a great opportunity to immerse myself in speaking Spanish.
I had traveled to Barcelona once before, during my backpacking-around-Europe days, but that was eight years ago. My experience then was much more touristy. I was there for less than two weeks and stay at a hostel just off of Las Ramblas. During that visit, I had met a bunch of Australians and we visited the Sagrada Familia and Parc Güell. At night, we’d go out for paella and join a pub crawl.
This past summer, I lived in Esparreguera, a suburb 40 minutes outside of Barcelona, and my experience was completely different. It was a quiet little town, with a beautiful view of the mountain of Montserrat. There wasn’t too much to do except sit outside and have a coffee in the morning. Or sit outside and have a beer in the evening. The people who lived there were mostly teenaged and middle-aged Catalans, some Spaniards, and a few immigrants from Latin America, Morocco, and Pakistan. All my friends were locals, whom I had met during my travels.
Whenever I would go to the center of Barcelona, I would marvel at the number of tourists. With a population of 1.6 million, Barcelona receives over 7 million visitors a year! It was reported that visitors spend more than 12 billion euros a year and support an estimated 100,000 jobs. But this is not a tourism success story.
International tourist arrivals have resulted in over 1.1 billion people in 2014, according to the United Nations World Tourism Organization. Major newspapers are telling of overcrowding and inappropriate behavior at all the world’s major sites. Recently, people have posed nude at the temples of Angkor Wat, carved their initials into the Roman Colosseum, and have disturbed nesting sea turtles in Costa Rica.
“More and more tourists are disappointed when they visit Barcelona because in the centre of Barcelona, they find a theme park. Everyone wants to see the real city, but if the centre fills up with multinationals and big stores that you can find in any other city, it doesn’t work,” the new mayor of Barcelona, Ada Colau, is reported to have said.
With her background as a housing activist, Colau, gained a large amount of visibility when she announced that she would impose a one year ban on new hotel licenses. She also announced that she would stamp down on unlicensed apartment rentals such as Airbnb.
This isn’t to say that I never did the touristy thing while in Barcelona. I definitely went on a pub crawl, ate paella, and visited Gaudi’s Casa Milà. However I also sought out different ways of experiencing the city. For example, I hiked along the Camino de Santiago from Esparreguera to Montserrat and partied at a correfoc. Along the way I had to navigate a society that was completely unfamiliar to me, which often times left me lost and confused. Still, I improved my Spanish, met some locals, and learned about the diversity of Catalonia.
Throughout my travels, I’ve become more aware of the impact I make as a traveler. I realize now that it’s the connections that I make, the new daily routines that I follow, and the unique moments that I encounter that make a destination meaningful. So while I am guilty of taking selfies, I also make a point of seeking out unconventional experiences. I hope I can inspire others to do the same.