Catalonia's tourism activity slumps

Catalonia's independence push is taking its toll on the region's tourism industry, with revenues and hotel bookings down since a banned October 1 secession referendum that was marred by violence.

Catalonia, with its capital Barcelona and Costa Brava beaches, is the Spanish region that most attracts foreign visitors. More than 18 million visitors went in 2016, or a quarter of all foreigners who came to Spain. "The tourism sector is one of the most strongly affected by the instability," Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy told parliament last week as defended his government's handling of the Catalan crisis. But images of police beating would-be voters as they tried to stop the independence referendum and the massive street demonstrations in Barcelona that followed the vote had dampened visitors' enthusiasm.

Catalan protests in Barcelona

Catalonia's tourism activity slumped by around 15 percent during the first two weeks of October compared to the same time last year, according to industry lobby group Exceltur. Barcelona's emblematic Las Ramblas boulevard was still packed with locals and tourists on Tuesday, who sat in the sun on outdoor terraces or drove by on open-top buses. But local shop owners complain of a slump in activity. "You feel it, there are less tourists since October 1. Our sales have dropped by about 25 percent, it's very worrying," Susana Garcia, 44, who runs a confectionery stand on the boulevard, told. "If you watch TV, and you see Barcelona and police hitting people, and people saying there is no democracy, would you go there?" Jose Luis Morais has noticed a similar drop in business at his nearby newspaper stand, but he thinks it has "more to do" with the jihadists attacks in Barcelona and the nearby resort of Cambrils in August that killed 16 people "than because of the political situation".

Catalonia's tourism activity dropped by around five percent in September in the wake of the attacks, according to Exceltur. Just before the referendum several countries, including Germany, France and the United States, warned their citizens to be careful if they travelled to Catalonia.

Cruise ship terminals at Barcelona port

Spanish airline Iberia and American Airlines allowed their passengers on flights to Barcelona to change their tickets for another destination if they wished for free.

A cruise ship which was due to dock in Barcelona on October 1, the day of the referendum, cancelled its stop in the city, a spokeswoman for the port of Barcelona said. Another cruise ship delayed its stop in the city by a few days, she added. Barcelona is one of the most popular stops for cruise ships in Europe. More than 800 cruise ships dock in the city every year. With Catalan president Carles Puigdemont threatening to declare independence following the referendum, the impact on the tourism sector is likely to continue in the coming months.

Barcelona, the jewel on the Mediterranean

La Sagrada Familia

Antoni Gaudi's La Sagrada Familia basilica is a major tourist draw in Barcelona. Begun in 1882 by architect Francisco Paula de Villar, it was continued by Gaudi until his death in 1926 — and remains unfinished to this day. A mixture of Spanish Late Gothic, Catalan Modernism and art nouveau styles, the church is also a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Barcelona, the jewel on the Mediterranean

Gaudi's world

La Sagrada Familia, planned for completion in 2026, welcomes visitors from all over the world with an expressive interplay of light and color. Gaudi took nature as the inspiration for his architectural language. The roof is supported by columns that rise toward the sky like trees. In addition to La Sagrada Familia, Gaudi designed the Park Guell and several residential buildings in Barcelona.

Barcelona, the jewel on the Mediterranean

Las Ramblas

Spanish poet Federico Garcia Lorca wrote that Barcelona's main boulevard was "the one street in the world I didn't want to end." The iconic heart of Spain's second-largest city saw bloodshed on August 17, when more than a dozen people were killed in a terrorist attack. The vibrant promenade is particularly full of pedestrians, shoppers, diners and street performers on warm afternoons.

Barcelona, the jewel on the Mediterranean

Fundacio Joan Miro

When terrorists drove a van down Las Ramblas, running over pedestrians in their path, the vehicle came to a halt in front of a statue by Barcelona-born artist Joan Miro (1893-1983). A museum dedicated to the painter, sculptor, and ceramicist is located on the nearby Montjuic hill. His work reflects motifs from Catalan folk art and can also be found throughout the city — like on Las Ramblas.

Barcelona, the jewel on the Mediterranean

The harbor

Las Ramblas leads directly down to Barcelona's large harbor. The 1992 Olympic Games in the city sparked a building boom that transformed the cityscape and modified the harbor area. Since then, the Port Olimpic, with its promenade, bars and restaurants, has become a popular attraction. The "Golden Fish," a sculpture designed by architect Frank Gehry for the 1992 Olympics, is a striking landmark.

Barcelona, the jewel on the Mediterranean

The Gothic Quarter

Just north of Las Ramblas is the Barri Gotic, the Gothic Quarter in the Old Town. The quarter dates back to the 14th and 15th centuries and contains Roman and medieval landmarks — the oldest in the city. If you don't pay attention, you can lose your way in its maze of alleyways, but at least you won't be bothered by cars. The narrow streets are closed to regular traffic.

Barcelona, the jewel on the Mediterranean

The squares

In many places in Barcelona, the city streets open up into small or large squares. One of them, Plaça Reial, is just a few meters away from Las Ramblas. It is a popular meeting place for night owls, perhaps because it is home to some of the city's most famous nightclubs. Constructed in the 19th century, the square's lanterns were designed by Catalan architect Antoni Gaudi.

Barcelona, the jewel on the Mediterranean

Font Magica

The Font Magica may well be the most romantic place in Barcelona. Built in 1929 for the International Exposition and restored for the 1992 Olympic Games, the magic fountain's cascades of water are lit in more than 50 shifting hues during the annual Piromusical fireworks and laser show. The Font Magica is the largest fountain in the city and is located at the base of the Montjuic hill.

Barcelona, the jewel on the Mediterranean

Tibidabo

Barcelona is framed by two hills, Montjuic (173 meters, 568 feet tall) and Tibidabo (520 meters). Both are perfect vantage points to take in the cityscape, though Tibidabo allows for a slightly better view. It's reached with Barcelona's only historic tram line, the Tramvia Blau. At the summit, an amusement park awaits visitors.

Barcelona, the jewel on the Mediterranean

The beaches

Not only the city of Barcelona but also its nearby beaches draw millions of tourists a year. The coastline near the city spans 4.5 kilometers (nearly 3 miles) and boasts nine beaches, the most popular of which are Barceloneta, Mar Bella, Nova Icaria and Bogatell. In the summer months, water tempteratures reach a comfortable 20-24 degrees Celcius (68-75 degrees Fahrenheit).

Barcelona is a popular destination for French tourists when schools close for an annual holiday at the end of October but reservations for the period are down by 5-10 percent, a spokesman for travel firm eDreams Odigeo said.

Reservations by all nationalities at hotels in Catalonia are down by around 20 percent until the end of the year, according to Exceltur. It predicts the drop could reach up to 30 percent if the crisis continues, which would cost Catalonia 1.8 billion euros ($2.1 billion) in lost revenues. Tourism sector companies have also "seriously put the brakes" on all investments in Catalonia until the end of 2017, Exceltur vice president Jose Luis Zoreda told.

Tourism accounts for 12 percent of Catalonia's economic output and employs just over 400,000 people. Exceltur warned the crisis could have "strong" effect on jobs if it continues.

The rest of Spain has not recorded a fall in reservations but the slowdown in Catalonia risks putting the brakes on a sector which has been booming and is key for the Spanish economy.

is/ks (afp)