Before 1992, it was unthinkable to swim and sunbathe on La Barceloneta’s beaches in Barcelona, but now they are a lure for millions of tourists and their disposable income
Barcelona is a tourist magnet, and it’s not just because of the tapas, La Rambla, buildings like Sagrada Familia by Antoni Gaudi, or the Joan Miró museum, but also because of its city beaches that stretch out along the Mediterranean Sea. These famed beaches are on La Barceloneta, only a few hundred meters from the city center, really just a 20-minute walk from the port end of La Rambla.
A MAJOR TOURIST ATTRACTION
But Barceloneta is a fake beach, just like Paris has a summer-long fake beach on the Seine and just like the controversial 500-meter-long strip of dolomite beach on Manila Bay, which was launched to the public last weekend.
In fact, although it was mentioned in Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra’s The Ingenious Gentleman Don Quixote of La Mancha, arguably the first modern novel, which was published in the early 1600s, the area of La Barceloneta was uninhabited before the 18th century, uninhabitable even by fishermen because the sea conditions then were not ideal for fishing.
And yet today, La Barceloneta is a bustling neighborhood, a major tourist attraction. Both locals and foreigners come in droves not only to bask in the sun on the sand and to swim in the sea, but also to eat, drink, and party. It is among the best places to try Barcelona’s fresh harvest of fish and the Catalan paella. In the summer, it is packed day and night. The parties at the small cafés and clubs last from dusk to dawn or often to brunch of tomato toasts and Bloody Mary at La Deliciosa.
Before 1992, however, all these activities in La Barceloneta, especially for non-locals, were as unthinkable as Manila girls in designer bikinis wading in Manila Bay today. It was nothing but a small strip of unswimmable beach lined with warehouses and factories and maybe a handful of chiringuitos or makeshift bars catering strictly to the locals or the workers in need of a break from routine work.
A MULTI-MILLION-DOLLAR FACELIFT
What’s happened to La Barceloneta was a multi-million-dollar facelift, a long-term gift of the 1992 Olympics, in preparation for which a wide stretch of shoreline was covered with sand imported from as far away as Egypt.
Since then, also with the construction of beach promenades, concept hotels, some landmarks like the 52-meter-long golden fish sculpture called El Paix by Frank Gehry, and a couple of museums like the Museum of Catalan History, the area has been on the list of must-visit places in Barcelona.
Among its popular beaches is Sant Sebastià, a favorite spot of young people and hordes of foreign tourists. There’s also Barceloneta, which is so popular there is hardly any room on the sand for your beach towel unless you come very early in the morning. Somorrostro, formerly the slums, is where some of the hottest nightspots are.
But just like Manila Bay, though the crushed dolomite on Manila Bay has yet to adhere to the ground on which it has been transported from Cebu, there are two sides to the transformation of La Barceloneta.
STOP MASS AND WILD TOURISM
Income from tourism, of course, is among the bright spots. According to a study carried out by a boutique firm of independent consultants, the RBD Consulting Group, “on average, tourist purchases account for a little more than 18 percent of the entire revenue of Barcelona’s commercial sector.” Generating 150,000 direct and indirect jobs, tourism is among the main drivers of the economy in the city, as well as the fourth greatest wealth creation activity, which accounts for 7.3 percent of the GDP.
The truth may be stretched thin, but it never breaks, and it always surfaces above lies, as oil floats on water. —Don Quixote, Miguel de Cervantes
Of course, life is not just about money. In 2015, represented by young residents of Barceloneta holding placards with the message “Stop Mass and Wild Tourism,” in a demonstration against “drunk” tourism, residents were up in arms trying to claim their home from tourists. What instigated the conflict was a photo of young, rowdy Italian tourists running naked in the streets, which made headlines in newspapers around the world.
“Barcelona Says Enough,” screamed the other placards as well as the protesters. La Barceloneta was at the center of these mixed feelings about tourism in Spain because of its Mediterranean beaches, its rich maritime cultural history, and its fare of seafood and party libations, which have lured millions of tourists, their disposable income, and their unabated willingness to fund not only the black market but also rows upon rows of what Barcelona calls “illegal apartments.”
In 2017, the problem with the underground economy came to a head when, acting on 7,217 reports of unlicensed hawkers peddling mojitos and lemonade in plastic glasses and other food and drinks in La Barceloneta, a laboratory analysis revealed an alarming content of fecal bacteria or e-coli in much of what was on offer from illegal vendors on the beaches. That year, according to the authorities at the Barceloneta city hall, 133,622 drinks were seized, up by 20 percent from the year before. These illegals, unstoppable and ever-growing, despite increased police presence, provide other services, such as beach massages, hair braiding, and prostitution. Of course, in a crowd like that, expect the pickpockets and other shady characters lurking among the sun lounges and beach umbrellas.
These problems come with overtourism, tourismphobia being one of them. With hope they can be managed, so it doesn’t end up a tourists-or-no-tourists dilemma for nations like Spain dependent on tourism income. While the ongoing Covid-19 crisis might have offered temporary relief, La Barceloneta, with enough restrictions in place, has re-opened since June.
And now the question of the sand. In an earlier article connected to the Manila Bay brouhaha, I wrote about the adverse global impact of sand mining, as well as the growing evidence that the world is running out of sand.
The sandy beaches of La Barceloneta are not without controversies. Here’s a report in the Metropolitan, a Barcelona website, published in April 2016: “Barcelona’s Ajuntament has announced that, since 2010, the popular Barceloneta beach has lost around 28 percent of its surface area. As the most distinguished and well-known beach in the city, 50 percent of the sand added in 2008 and 2010 has disappeared (equivalent to five football pitches), largely due to storms. In order to bring the continued loss of sand to a halt, the Ajuntament has reached out to the government, urging them to introduce beach regeneration projects as a matter of urgency. So far, simply replacing the sand has proven an ineffective strategy, and would cost an eye-watering €800,000.”
But that’s not only it. Earlier, in 2008, the quality of sand in La Barceloneta was put into question, with the World Health Organization heading the investigation, as concerns were raised over microbial matter found in the sand and the water.
A WORLD IN DANGER
Nevertheless, just as, at this point on Manila Bay, the choice shouldn’t be between continued rehabilitation and just leaving that piece of prime property to the murk, dirt, and pollution, La Barceloneta’s challenge does not include sending the area back to those times its beaches were non-existent, just a long line of old factories and shanty towns.
Yes, about a third of Barceloneta Beach has been washed away into the Mediterranean. But it’s not a problem limited to the Catalan shoreline. With sea level rise, and the intensification of storms as a result of climate change, coastal regions all over the world are increasingly under threat. Some islands in Indonesia, as many as 24, have vanished since 2005 and authorities attribute the loss to uncontrolled sand mining.
We have a problem here in Manila, there in La Barceloneta, and everywhere else in the world and a workable long-term solution is what we need, and maybe that solution has very little to do with sand, although sand is what made La Barceloneta the prime world destination it is today.
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