Photograph by Edu Bayer
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Because of the coronavirus, Barcelona’s Sagrada Família has been closed to visitors since March 13, but a spokesperson for the site finds inspiration in the building itself, which “has survived wars and many other obstacles in its time.”

Photograph by Edu Bayer

Barcelona goes from overtourism to no tourism

The coronavirus lockdown is keeping travelers away, but the Catalan spirit is fueling a surprising surge of local optimism.

In recent years, nearly 30 million tourists annually have descended on Barcelona, in northeastern Spain, to savor its sites, beaches, and Catalonian culture. A large number of them (an estimated 3.2 million in 2019) were day-trippers who arrived by cruise ship to the city’s port, the largest in the Mediterranean.

Though tourist spending accounts for nearly a fifth of the revenue generated by the city’s commercial sector, this profit engine has been polarizing, with many of Barcelona’s 1.6 million inhabitants lamenting the negative effects of overtourism.

But now everything’s changed, for travelers and locals. Soon after the coronavirus arrived in late February, tourism evaporated and residents began to shelter under one of the world’s strictest lockdowns.

So what’s Barcelona like these days?

Mood on the street

On a quiet morning in early April, sunlight illuminates Barcelona’s medieval alleyways. It may sound idyllic, but the silence suggests that all is not well. Squares that a few weeks ago were packed now sit eerily empty. Occasionally a resident hurries by, wearing a face mask and carrying shopping bags, eyes turned downward to avoid attracting attention.

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During the coronavirus outbreak, normally bustling streets like those near the Catalan Gothic-style Basilica of Santa Maria del Mar in the El Born neighborhood have been deserted.

Spain has been under lockdown since March 14, and the instructions are clear: leave home for anything other than essential work, groceries, or medical reasons, and face a hefty fine of anywhere from 100 euros to a prison sentence. Even more than the legal ramifications, people fear the virus, which has claimed some 15,000 lives in Spain to date, placing its COVID-19 death toll behind only those of Italy and the United States.

Being confined to their homes is not something people here take lightly. Spain has a high percentage of apartment-dwellers, at about two-thirds of the population. This, combined with a favorable climate and long summer evenings, helps explain why residents spend a lot time en la calle, or in the street. Under the lockdown rules, no outdoor exercise or socializing is permitted. But every night at 8 p.m., people take to their balconies to give a standing ovation to healthcare professionals working in the country’s hospitals, a communal movement that’s spreading across the globe.

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A shopper returns from buying groceries, one of the few outdoor activities permitted during the coronavirus lockdown in Barcelona.

Reactions at tourist sites

Lines of visitors normally snake around Sagrada Família, Antoni Gaudí's unfinished basilica and the city’s biggest tourist draw. Since its closure on March 13, the icon stands empty. “While we can’t foresee the future, we’re confident we’ll be able to reopen in a few weeks,” said Oriol Llop, communications and brand director for the site. “Despite the challenges, we’ll remain standing, following the example of La Sagrada Família itself, which has survived wars and many other obstacles in its time.”

At La Pedrera-Casa Milá, another of Gaudí’s famed landmarks, visitor numbers for the month of March were already down 65 percent before it shuttered on March 14.

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On La Rambla, Barcelona’s best-known boulevard, stacked café chairs await the return of patrons.

Marwa Preston, who runs gastronomic experience company Wanderbeak, said her business was on track for its best year ever before the virus hit. Yet she remains hopeful: “Unlike the financial crisis of 2008, where people lost a lot of money, this pandemic has us staying at home, refraining from spending. Once things improve, people will be thirsty for travel and experiences, with money in their pockets,” said Preston, who has already launched a “post-quarantine” wine and vermouth tasting tour to support the comeback of local bars and restaurants.

Her optimism is shared by Inés Miró-Sans, co-founder of Casa Bonay boutique hotel. “This situation has created a sense of community like nothing I’ve seen before,” she said. “People are helping each other in any way they can. Hotels that would normally be competitors are working together as one.”

Questions of identity

Unity has been a central theme of Spanish government statements in recent weeks, a change from the political climate of recent years, which has seen Catalan separatism dominate the news. While some might argue that issues of independence be set aside during the pandemic, others disagree.

Oriol Arechinolaza i Escuer, a lawyer, and Marta Ginebra Domingo, a law and political science student, both have long-standing links to the independence movement. Ginebra says many residents—pro-independence or not—were dismayed by the Spanish government’s refusal to allow Catalonia to isolate itself from the rest of Spain to limit the spread of the disease. “When the central government makes bad decisions, it causes resentment among those who believe an independent Catalonia would have done better,” she said.

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Despite now-empty streets, such as Carrer de Ferran, above, many Barcelona residents feel hopeful about the post-coronavirus future.

Looking to the future, Ginebra and Arechinolaza think the Catalan separatists may set themselves apart through a willingness to invest in better public services. “The COVID-19 crisis could create an opportunity for the pro-independence parties to propose more left-wing economic policies than the Spanish state, thereby garnering more support,” added Arechinolaza.

Reasons for hope

The desire for self-determination is not the only trait for which Catalonia is known. People here tend to place a high value on seny, a Catalan word that translates as common sense and levelheadedness. While the virus is putting seny to one of its toughest tests yet, this mindset may be something that helps the people of Barcelona get through the ordeal.

Xavier Bas, director of public affairs at the Catalunya La Pedrera Foundation, which manages visits to La Pedrera-Casa Milá and tackles social issues, echoed the sentiment. “We’re approaching the situation with a sense of calm and responsibility. By joining forces as a society, we’ll overcome this health crisis together, despite having no means of knowing how long it will take.”

The people of Barcelona have a reputation for resilience in the face of adversity, from nearly four decades under Franco’s dictatorship to the terrorist attack in 2017, when residents gathered in Plaça de Catalunya to chant “no tinc por,” or “I am not afraid.”

At Casa Bonay, Inés Miró-Sans is already preparing for the return of tourism to Barcelona. “This is a rare opportunity to slow down, take stock, and think whether we could be doing things differently or better,” she said. “I believe we’ll come out of this stronger, together.”

Isabelle Kliger is a Barcelona-based writer focusing on travel, culture, and lifestyle. Follow her adventures on Instagram.