The Spanish region of Catalonia has featured heavily in recent news, thanks to the increasingly unstable political environment caused by some of its residents’ desire for independence. Here's a look at the events of the Catalan Crisis to date, and what their outcome may mean for tourism both in Catalonia, and in Spain as a whole.
Understanding Catalonia’s History
In order to understand the events currently taking place in Catalonia, it’s important to take a closer look at the region’s history. Located in Spain’s northeast corner, Catalonia is one of the country's 17 autonomous communities. It is home to approximately 7.5 million people, many of whom are fiercely proud of the region’s distinct heritage and culture. The Catalan identity is represented by a separate language, anthem and flag; and up until recently, the region even had its own parliament and police force.
However, the central government in Madrid controls Catalonia’s budget and taxes—a source of contention for Catalan separatists who resent having to contribute to the country’s poorer regions. The current troubles are largely rooted in the events of 2010, when the Spanish Constitutional Court overruled several articles passed by the Catalan parliament in a 2006 update to the region’s autonomous statute. Amongst the rejected changes was the decision to rank the Catalan language over Spanish in Catalonia.
Many Catalan residents saw the Constitutional Court’s decision as a threat to the region’s autonomy. Over a million people took to the streets in protest, and the pro-independence parties at the center of today’s conflict gained momentum as a direct consequence.
The current crisis began on October 1st, 2017, when the Catalan parliament held a referendum to determine whether the Catalan people wanted independence. The results showed a 90% result in favor of an independent republic; but in reality, only 43% of residents showed up at the ballot to vote—leaving it unclear what the majority of Catalonians really want. In any case, the referendum was declared illegal by the Constitutional Court.
Nevertheless, on October 27th, the Catalan parliament voted to establish an independent republic by 70 votes to 10 in a secret ballot. Madrid labelled the vote as an attempted coup d’etat, and triggered Article 155 of the Spanish constitution as a result. This article, which has never before been invoked, gave Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy the power to impost direct rule on Catalonia. He promptly dissolved the Catalan parliament, and fired the region’s political leaders alongside the head of the regional police.
Deposed Catalan President Carles Puigdemont initially encouraged resistance to the edicts from Madrid, then fled to Belgium to escape charges of rebellion and sedition. In the meantime, Rajoy has announced a legal regional election for December 21st, which will see the establishment of a new Catalan parliament and restore the region’s autonomy. On October 31st, Puigdemont announced that he would respect the results of the December election, and that he would return to Spain if a fair trial is guaranteed.
The Effects of the Crisis Going Forward
Puigdemont’s acceptance of the new election effectively renders the old parliament’s decision to establish an independent republic invalid. For now, relations between Catalonia and the rest of Spain remain uncertain. Despite instances of police violence ahead of the October 1st referendum, it seems unlikely at this point that the situation will descend into a state of armed conflict. However, antagonism between Madrid and Catalonia (and between secessionists and pro-unionists within the region itself) is sure to continue for some time.
If the party elected in December is pro-independence, the subject of a separate Catalan republic will undoubtedly be resurrected in the coming months and years.
For now, the main effects of the crisis are likely to be economic. Already, more than 1,500 companies have moved their headquarters out of Catalonia, including both of the region’s largest banks. Hotel bookings and visitor figures have also fallen, suggesting that the tourism sector will suffer financially as a result of Catalonia’s political turmoil. The wider Spanish economy could also be affected, as the Catalan GDP represents almost 20% of the country’s total.
Whether ultimately successful or not, Catalonia’s public demand for independence could cause shockwaves throughout the wider European community. So far, the European Union, the United Kingdom and the United States have all declared their support for a united Spain. An independent Catalonia would withdraw from the EU and the Euro, combining with Brexit to set a precedent for other secessionist movements in Europe and threatening the stability of the EU as a whole.
Possible Impacts for Visitors to Catalonia
Several of Spain’s most visited destinations are located within Catalonia, including the city of Barcelona (famous for its Catalan Modernist architecture) and the unspoiled Costa Brava coast. In 2016, the region attracted 17 million tourists.
At the moment, the U.S. Embassy in Spain has not released any Travel Alerts or Travel Warnings for Spain, although both the US and UK governments advise tourists to exercise caution in Catalonia as a result of ongoing protests. Most experts believe that the risk of outright conflict has been dampened by the failure of Puigdemont’s attempted coup. However, the chance for sporadic violence between extremist groups on either side of the argument cannot be ruled out.
Even peaceful protests have the potential to turn violent unexpectedly. Nevertheless, it’s far more likely that demonstrations will cause disruption to your day-to-day movements rather than posing a physical threat. At the moment, uncertainty, inconvenience and an aura of tension are the biggest drawbacks to a Catalan vacation in the midst of the current political climate.
With that being said, Catalonia remains a breathtaking destination steeped in culture and history. In Barcelona, public transport continues to function as usual and hotels and restaurants are open for business. Tourists may even benefit from fewer crowds and lower prices as businesses strive to incentivise visitors to uphold their bookings, rather than divert their vacation plans elsewhere.
What About the Rest of Spain?
Some sources warn that if tensions with Catalonia continue, the diversion of the central police force to problems in the northeast could leave the rest of the country exposed at a time when all European countries are facing an increased risk of terrorism. This is not an idle threat—in August 2017, 16 people were killed following Islamic State attacks in Barcelona and Cambrils.
Similarly, others are concerned that Catalonia’s independence movement could trigger the increased efforts of secessionists in other autonomous regions of Spain, including Andalusia, the Balearic Islands and the Basque Country. In the latter, separatist group ETA killed over 820 people in violent campaigns for independence, and was only disarmed in April 2017. However, there is no evidence that ETA or any other violent organization will mobilize as a result of the events in Catalonia.
For now, life in the rest of Spain goes on as normal and tourists are unlikely to be affected. While this may change if the Catalan Crisis deteriorates in the coming months, there’s no reason to cancel your Spanish vacation just yet.