Eulogy for Catalonia

There is something perverse about Barcelona’s Gothic quarter. A maze of handsome streets wind through the Catalan capital’s heart: at its core lies the cathedral: the city’s focal point, a majestic precipice around which the old town was built. Each street corner is adorned with another gothic facade; each square conceals an unknown taverna or cervercería. Catalan flags hang proudly and the air is rich with the riffs of guitars and the coarse tone of the region’s language. Then, from nowhere, a colourful blotch appears- but gone is the Catalan influence. Scores of luridly coloured hats, toys, and flags fill one shop, spilling out onto the historic streets. Where, years ago, Christopher Columbus heralded tales of the New World, there now hang cheap t-shirts professing “Barcelona is the dogs’ bollocks”. The very street on which Picasso crafted Les Demoiselles d’Avignon is now lined with immigrants palming cheap drugs to tourists.  Where Saint Eulalia, the city’s patron saint, was murdered for her beliefs, instead stands Barcelona’s largest adult store: a martyr whose torture included the removal of her breasts, is uncomfortably immortalized by a large pair of inflatable bosoms in the shop display. Barcelona, like much of Spain, has been invaded- the international tourist lines the city’s streets: unsightly, loud, disrespectful, but above all, indispensable.

The city of Barcelona, by Larripa, via Wikimedia Commons

The outgoing Socialist government in Spain left in its wake an ailing nation. The country’s public deficit is among Europe’s worst, at 8.9 percent of GDP. The new government has been forced to request 100 billion Euros to recapitalise its banks- stifled by debt following a burst property bubble. Youth unemployment stands at over half the population, and a negotiated credit line shall plunge the country further into arrears. Within this dying national body, runs one indispensable vein of austerity: tourism. Attracting almost 60 million visitors annually, Spain is the world’s fourth most popular destination. Tourism accounts for an estimated 14 percent of GDP and provides three million Spaniards with jobs. In the final years of Francisco Franco’s military dictatorship, thousands flocked to coastal resorts, as the landscape was re-sculpted to suit the foreigners’ needs. Then, nourishing a greedy financial system, now, tourism is a lifeline to an emaciated state. The tourists are tolerated because they are needed, but they are scarring Spain’s heritage beyond repair.

Take the small coastal resort of Salou. A fishing town south of Barcelona, Salou was formerly a prominent port during the reign of King Alfonso III of Aragon. Following the Muslim invasion in the 13th century, the town became a hotbed for pirates, and so dangerous did life in the town become that a defence tower, the Torre Vella, was erected to guard over the population.  The tower guaranteed the town’s protection, but tourism was its saviour.  Like many other coastal towns, Salou prospered during the 1960s, and continues to attract a steady stream of tourists eager to enjoy the fabled golf resorts, and vibrant coastline. Every Easter though, the town transforms. Many of its population leave, houses are boarded up, and shops stock up on supplies- though this has nothing to do with Spain’s religious Easter tradition (in Catalonia, religion is generally associated with the former regime, and avoided). Instead, the Easter weekend marks the arrival of Saloufest: a week long sport’s festival that brings thousands of British students to the town. Morally, it is among the most deplorable events in the modern age. Students drink until they can no longer physically do so; they insult what locals remain, and deface and vandalise their property. For days on end, streets are lined with litter, vomit, and unconscious students. It is a shameless celebration of debauchery that mocks the region’s heritage: yet, each year, local businesses are desperate for the students’ return.  Estimates reveal that in a single week, the local economy takes more than it does in the preceding  six months. Locals bear the tourists with gritted teeth; many simply choose to abandon their homes while they are in town. However, each year the students shall continue to invade,  and local pride shall again be cast aside, for superficial devastation is a slim price to pay for economic stability.

Salou’s lucrative plight is common to many towns throughout Spain. In every region, locals resent the foreign invaders, but are conscious of their importance. Each holiday season, they twist their faces into welcoming smiles, and offer the activities and cuisine the tourists misinterpret as Spanish tradition. Around them, the legacy of their ancestors is dismantled, and a modern apartment block or casino is built in its place. Economically, Spain is suffering. In many coastal towns, culturally, she is already dead.