On Saturday, amid the great tide of humanity lapping around Barcelona’s Sagrada Familia, a hardy clump of demonstrators stood out. They marched through the packed crowds, explaining to the tourists, in a variety of languages, why their visit to Barcelona could have catastrophic consequences.

The protesters, who numbered around 150 people, all live in the area around the Sagrada Familia, and fear that their homes will be demolished under plans to expand the cathedral and give the tourists more space. Saturday was just the latest protest by the residents in their desperate attempts to stave off expulsion.

The protest provides a snapshot of the tension that’s simmering between Barcelona’s residents and the millions of interlopers sharing the city with them. You see it in the four-letter graffiti daubed around popular landmarks such as Parc Guell; you hear it in the bars when tongues have been loosened. As Barcelona prepares for Sunday’s municipal elections, the ‘tourism problem’ has become a keynote theme.

The Catalan capital should be basking in its visitor boom. In the last 30 years, the annual number of visitors has increased nearly six-fold. Last year alone, their spend rose by 6.9%. This flood of people and money has allowed sites as Parc Guell and the Sagrada Familia to become booming industries in their own right. F.C. Barcelona’s museum recently announced annual revenues of 58 million euros, nearly as much as the club makes on matchdays.

But, if you ask the people who actually live here, they’ll tell you the guiris (a derogatory term for a clueless foreigner) are sullying the city’s heritage. They might mention the swarm of Airbnb properties in the Gothic Quarter which are pushing out ordinary families. Or the stag dos which have brought a proliferation of pimps, pickpockets and prostitutes to Las Ramblas. Or even the army of street hawkers who have created their own markets around the beach, the parks and the Placa Catalunya interchange.

In recent months, the situation has threatened to boil over. Last July Arran, a left-wing youth group, invaded a tourist bus and let off smoke bombs in an “industrial action against the [current] tourism model”. A month later, a group of vendors were caught on camera scuffling with an American visitor. The footage went viral and the two sides blamed the other for starting it; vendors told local reporters that the police and media were deliberately trying to stir up hatred against them.

But Barcelona is in a bind. The city’s planners know that tourism accounts for 15% of the city’s GDP, and 9% of its employment. Without the influx of flights and cruise ships witnessed since the 1992 Olympics, the city would not have become a European powerhouse. Barcelona lags far behind many of its European rivals for manufacturing and business services, so if it wants to project itself as a truly global city, it needs those guiris to keep coming in.

Pere Mariné, of Barcelona’s Federation of Neighbourhood Associations (or FAVB, to call it by its Catalan acronym), sums up the point eloquently. The group, which works to improve the quality of life for Barcelona’s inhabitants, has long urged municipal leaders to modify their tourism strategy. However Pere is keen to make the point that the FAVB isn’t against tourism per se. It is simply against the “over-crowding” and “over-exploitation” permitted under the current model.

“Barcelona is an open and cosmopolitan city, with a welcoming character,” he tells InsideOver. “There’s no problem in receiving visitors, expect when the number reaches a point that creates genuine problems for the residents.

“This is something that’s happened in all tourist hotspots. The boom in low-cost flights and the boom that’s accompanied the end of the crisis has given more people the opportunity to travel, and that’s great. But the problem is that, if you don’t have any kind of controls in place, you get what’s happened in cities like Venice.

“The tourists are using the bulk of services that everyday people rely on. Commerce, healthcare, security, water, light… this might be a small part of the usage for the city as a whole, but you get to a point when the over-use isn’t compensated [by the money the tourists bring].”

Marine says there are two main problems. The first lies in the fact that tourists disrupt the “rhythm of life” of local people by partying in residential buildings and crowding access roads to schools and hospitals. The second is the damage the tourism industry has wreaked on popular neighbourhoods by driving up rental prices and pushing out traditional shops, which have given way to more visitor-friendly businesses.

Government in the firing line

When asked who deserves the blame for the explosion, Marine points the finger at the tourism industry for its attempts to exploit Barcelona’s cultural heritage. However others take a different view.

Many blame the municipal government, and in particular Ada Colau, the left-wing activist who has served as mayor for the past four years. Critics suggest Colau hasn’t done enough to curb the tourism problem. That she has focused on trivial policy gains rather than tackling the big issue head on.

Colau’s defenders will point out that, during her time in office, Barcelona has actually won a string of accolades including the World Travel Market award for responsible tourism. They’ll also point to the number of individual campaigns she has spearheaded, including increasing in the tourist tax and reducing the number of piers available to cruise ships from eight to seven. Colau’s government has told Airbnb to close hundreds of illegal properties and recently announced that it is funnelling €1.27m into a network of ‘detectives’, whose mission will be to track down such dwellings (the announcement came just weeks after reports in the local media that tenants were sub-letting their own properties, without their owners’ consent).

On Colau’s watch, City Hall has also overseen the publication of a landmark policy blueprint, called Tourism 2020, The blueprint’s author, Albert Arias, an academic at the University of Barcelona, tells InsideOver that the goal of the document isn’t to restrict the flow of visitors. Rather, it’s to build a joined-up strategy, integrated with Barcelona’s overall agenda, to mitigate the negative effects of tourism and to promote the social return.

Arias mounts a robust defence of Colau when asked to evaluate her record in office. He says that it’s impossible to put firm controls on the number and type of people who come to Barcelona, but Colau’s administration has done all it can to develop a proper structure.

“For the first time, we have a coherent strategy for managing tourism in Barcelona,” he says. “Never before have people considered tourism as an inherent activity of the city, and discussed how to govern it like other urban issues like housing or traffic. It’s a paradigm shift.”

“You can see it in the awards the city has won from organizations like the World Travel Market. But you can also see it the current election debate. The other candidates aren’t talking about how to attract more tourists, they’re talking about how to manage tourism activities to ensure the common good. Colau and her government have changed the game.”

Acid test

Whether Colau manages to see off those other candidates in Sunday’s vote remains to be seen, however. The latest polls suggest she faces a fierce fight against Ernest Maragall, the candidate of the pro-independence Republican Left, who has tapped into the popular frustration by proposing a brand-new levy on top of the current tourist charge, which he has christened the “Barcelona tax.”

The other parties have made their own promises. Together for Catalunya, until recently the most popular separatist party, has proposed investing more money in affordable accommodation for the most congested areas; the right-wing Popular Party has targeted the street hawkers and vowed to shut down their markets, referring to the vendors’ boulevards as “Colau’s galleries”. All the leading candidates have promised to increase the existing tax, in pursuit of what has become known as “tourism of quality.”

Whoever emerges triumphant, whatever measures they put in place, tourism is sure to remain a hot-button issue. The peak summer months are looming, raising the prospect of fresh clashes between Barcelona’s beleaguered burghers and the foreigners coming for a dash of sun, sea and sangria.

Peré Marine doesn’t think the situation will degenerate into outright violence. However he does believe we will see “more forceful, concrete action, more frequently” from groups like Arran, which has already promised further demonstrations.

Barcelona’s leaders, who have spent years cultivating an image of a peaceful, fun-loving metropolis, such no doubt view such a prospect with horror. The industry which has powered Barcelona’s rise to global prominence could end up bringing it down again.