How the terrorist attack changed Las Ramblas

By Roxanne Hendrickx

On August 17th time stood still in Barcelona. A white van entered the busy boulevard Las Ramblas and zigzagged over the sidewalk for almost half a kilometre, killing 13 people and wounding many more. It was a tragic event that affected a lot of people living, working and visiting the city. But how does Las Ramblas look now, five months after the attack?

When strolling around Las Ramblas on a sunny day in January, there’s very few tourists. On a day like this in the summer period, it’s almost impossible to walk here without constantly bumping into other people. Locals tend to avoid the iconic street and even some tourists don’t like walking in the masses. It is normal that there’s less tourism in winter, but I can’t keep myself from wondering if the terrorist attack has caused more tourists to stay away from this popular place.

What actually happened?

Let’s recap the facts of the tragic event on Las Ramblas. Around 5pm on Thursday August 17th, a very busy day in the middle of high season, a white van entered Las Ramblas from the side of Plaça Catalunya. The driver zigzagged through the busy pedestrian street, passing some of the busiest areas of Las Ramblas, including the famous market La Boquería, until finally making a stop 400 metres further, near the street art of Joan Miró. In the process, 13 people were killed and around 120 wounded. This made it the most lethal attack since the terrorist explosions in Madrid in 2004. The driver managed to get out of the vehicule and flee, but got shot a few days later in Subirats, a municipality 50 km from Barcelona. The terrorism group ISIS later claimed the attack.

Different factors affecting tourism

Several news media have reported that there’s a significant decrease in tourism to Barcelona since the attack. According to the Belgian newspaper Het Laatste Nieuws, there were 8% less bookings from Belgian people in Barcelona. All in all, that number is not too worrisome, in comparison to the tourist crisis in London and Paris after the terrorist attacks. But still the decrease was noticeable.

There’s of course more factors that are affecting Barcelonian tourism now. On October 1st, there was the referendum about the Catalan independence, which caused a lot of mayhem in Barcelona and some other Catalan cities.

The central government suspended the referendum because it was against the Spanish Constitution, and so it was illegal to go out and vote. The National Police and Guardia Civil violently intervened on places where people still managed to open the polling stations and this caused even more riots. A lot of people got hurt and travel agencies discouraged people to travel to Barcelona in this period.

Mayor eventually got what she wanted

In mayor Ada Colau’s election campaign in 2014, one of the promises she made was that she would give the citizens of Barcelona the right to a liveable city again. In the last years, a lot of people in Barcelona have been angry about the ever-growing number of tourists coming to their city. Higher renting prices, too much noise and pollution are only some of the complaints they have about their not-so-welcome guests. “Tourism kills the city” was one of the slogans angry citizens put on stickers everywhere around the city.

In 2016, 32 million tourists visited Barcelona. With a population of 1,6 million, that makes about 20 tourists per resident.

Colau created a new law, which limits the tourist flow by refusing new hotel licenses and fining unregistered Airbnb’s. This way, the construction of new hotels gets put to a stop and the number of tourists that can come to Barcelona at the same time will stop growing.

With the terrorist attack and the political commotion, did mayor Ada Colau get the decrease in tourism in she wanted?

Joan Miró’s mosaic artpiece where the terrorist’s rampage came to an end

How Las Ramblas changed

Since the terrorist attack, a lot of new security measures have been taken on Las Ramblas. There’s more police patrols, bollards were installed and from time to time there’s police helicopters scanning the area. “Prevention is the keyword for the safety measures we’re taking”, a police officer patrolling Las Ramblas explains.

The people in the street also recognize the changes. If you ask tourists if they are afraid something like the Ramblas attack will happen again, most of them will say no. They are happy with the changes made to the boulevard. A British tourist confirms this: “I feel much safer with the many police officers walking around on the street”. The questioned tourists said the terrorist attacks didn’t stop them from coming to Barcelona. “We didn’t even think about it when booking their trip”. This positive attitude is the one that also the residents of Barcelona want to take on. A few days after the attack, a lot of people came together on the streets and shouted “no tinc por” which means “I am not afraid”. The message was that life goes on and Barcelona needs to remain an international city where everyone is welcome.

This resilience of course has gone hand in hand with a lot of sadness. A lady working at the tourist office witnessed that the month following the attack was a very quiet and sad one. “It was such a contrast to the usual fuss on Las Ramblas. People avoided the place and no one wanted to talk about the events”. After a while, everything started to get going again but tourists coming into the city are still asking questions about the safety.

A new hope

Even though there’s still some ambiguousness and sensible fear in the air, local business owners and tourists are hopeful about the situation in Barcelona. A boost in the tourism and a lot of happy faces are expected for summer ’18. After a while, the only thing reminding us of the horrible attack will be the flowers that people keep on laying down for the victims.

A bouquet of flowers as a memorial for the victims of the terror attack at the beginning of Las Ramblas