BARCELONA — Tourists flock toward popular attractions, leaving little time to stroll Las Ramblas, a pedestrian mall lined with souvenir shops, cafes, and hotels. Visitors pack the 800-year-old La Boqueria for high-priced olive oil and marzipan. The labyrinthine Gothic quarter remains a map seller’s paradise.
But the overwhelming interest in this Spanish city can be traced to more recent history. Today’s crowds are the legacy of the 1992 Barcelona Olympics.
While other cities have been held up as examples of the Olympics failure to provide long-lasting value — such as Montreal, with lingering debt after the 1976 games, or Athens, where many former sports venues fell into disrepair after 2004 — Barcelona stands out as a success story.
With the Summer Games as catalyst, Barcelona in the 1980s and early 1990s reimagined its cityscape, reclaimed its Mediterranean seafront from industrial usage, and rebranded itself. Local leaders wanted the world to see a transformed city when the Olympics arrived. And it did.
Since then, Barcelona has become a model for future Olympic cities seeking their own reinvention. Most recently, London, which hosted the 2012 Summer Games, patterned the regeneration of its East End on Barcelona.
With Boston on the short list of 2024 US host city nominees, Barcelona’s experience becomes increasingly relevant — showing what can be done but also how Olympic legacies can be complicated and unpredictable.
“For the image of Barcelona, there is a point before the Olympics and a point after the Olympics,” said Ricardo Suarez, a lifelong Barcelona resident who has worked in the hotel industry since 1990 and is a fan of what the Olympics can do. “I cannot imagine, to be honest, what the city would be like without the Olympics. It changed the position of Barcelona on the map.”
Today, 7.5 million annual visitors (according to licensed hotel bookings) represent the biggest legacy of the Barcelona Games. It is several times greater than the 1.7 million who toured this city, the capital of Catalonia, in 1990.
Barcelona is the fourth-most-popular travel destination in Europe, behind London, Paris, and Istanbul, yet its considerably smaller population of 1.6 million can make the resident-to-tourist ratio uncomfortable.
This summer locals protested the swelling number of tourists in La Barceloneta, a triangular spit of Mediterranean coast not far from Las Ramblas. For many residents, La Barceloneta, a former fishing village turned prime tourist real estate, symbolizes a city overrun by visitors.
Barcelona also ranks among the world’s leading convention sites and boasts Europe’s largest cruise ship port based on the number of passengers it receives.
Residents know that tourism drives Barcelona’s economy, accounting for 12 percent of Catalonia’s GDP and bringing in $17.4 billion in 2013, according to city economic reports. But more and more Barcelonans wonder at what cost when it comes to quality of life and local character.
“Everything now is the same, the same construction for buildings, the same tapas, because tourists demand it,” said taxi driver Pepe Rodriguez, who grew up in Barcelona. “The small, real things have disappeared. The bakeries are not the same. All the real bars disappeared. Tourists ask me where the locals go and it is difficult to say.”
Rodriguez worries that the working class will soon disappear from the city, too, priced out of the neighborhoods by development designed to draw even more tourists.
Asked if Ronda Litoral, a ring road built to transport Olympic athletes, officials, and VIPs around the city, made driving a taxi in Barcelona easier, Rodriguez laughed. He earns a living weaving through city streets from one tourist destination to another, not speeding passengers from the former athletes’ village to the Olympic Stadium on Montjuic.
While the crowds thin slightly on Montjuic, sweeping city views and the Joan Miro museum still make the hillside a draw. Some tourists even wander into the Olympic Stadium for a quick look around. Although it appears a little tired, the stadium is not a white elephant. Since the Games, it has hosted rugby, football, soccer, and track competitions and rock concerts.
Built in 1927, then extensively renovated for 1992, the stadium was originally part of plans to lure the 1936 Summer Games to Barcelona. But as Berlin and Adolf Hitler infamously hosted those Games, civil war gripped Spain and led to the dictatorship of General Francisco Franco. Under the Franco regime, Barcelona became an industrial backwater and, ironically, perfectly positioned for an Olympic-related boom.
“Barcelona had been deprived of investment under the Franco regime because investment had been focused very much through Madrid,” said Michael Payne, a former IOC marketing director who is married to a Barcelonan. “It was way behind in its capital infrastructure. In the end, Barcelona used the Games to make up for what was 30 years of neglect.”
So, while Barcelona’s Olympic legacy inspires potential bidders such as Boston, it remains an exception rather than an easily duplicated success story. Still, its transformation demonstrates just how powerful a catalyst the Games can be at the right time with the right planning, motivating a city to launch long-delayed improvements.
In Barcelona, the greatest physical changes came along the Mediterranean coast, where an industrial corridor littered with train tracks and factories was redeveloped into 2 miles of beaches that attract tourists and locals alike. Barcelona built the athletes’ village in one of the poorest, most neglected parts of town. Now the apartments are desirable coastal residences.
With Barcelona reconnected to the sea, its Olympic branding projected the image of a sunny, energetic, creative Mediterranean city with logos and mascots inspired by Spanish artists such as Miro and Picasso. During the Games, events showcased the city’s architectural treasures, none more so than platform diving. As athletes flipped and twisted, the spires of modernist architect Antoni Gaudi’s Sagrada Familia, a church-turned-city symbol, formed an iconic backdrop.
All of this connected with a worldwide audience and spurred interest in Barcelona.
“After the Olympics, it started to be a glamorous city, a trend-setter city, a place where you could come to start artistic projects,” said Julia Macher, who, partly inspired by the Olympic legacy, moved from Germany to Barcelona 10 years ago.
Alberto Castro, who travels from Madrid to Barcelona twice a year to enjoy the city, said, “It was boring before the Olympics. It wasn’t a place you visited. Now, it’s exciting, colorful.”
The Barcelona tourism industry wants to draw 10 million visitors in the near future. But even Suarez, who has risen from bellboy to concierge, recognizes that Barcelona must be more than a top tourist/convention/cruise ship destination and take advantage of the Olympic legacy in other ways. He mentions how the city created an innovation district called 22@ in part of the coastal industrial area regenerated by the Olympics.
Said Suarez, “This is for the future.”