They come flying

We often wonder whether this is the productive model that we wish to encourage

In Catalonia nearly 400,000 people are employed in tourism. It is one of our economy’s main sectors and, overall, it has withstood the recession quite well. Nevertheless, some aspects of this industry are a cause for concern. The wages it pays are not as good as we would like. We are happy not to be a far-flung corner of the world but —particularly during the high season— we must admit that foreign visitors do become a bit of a nuisance. Or, in the case of “lager lout tourism”, they are outright off-putting. We worry about the effect of it all on our environment and housing prices. We often wonder whether this is the productive model that we wish to encourage. We are well-positioned in technological sectors, such as medicine, research and universities. That is where our future lies. We do not want Barcelona to become Venice. Do we want to be Massachusetts or do we want to be Miami?

Still, let us be fair. Miami is growing its knowledge-based economy, Massachusetts is a tourist hotspot and the Veneto’s economy has both heft and vitality. The world’s largest cities (NY, London, San Francisco) have it all. They debate how to fit a wide range of activities into a small area, and they do so as heatedly as we do. But these cities are success stories and it is hard not to conclude that there are strong complementarities among their various economic activities, like Jane Jacobs noted many years ago in The Death and Life of Great American Cities (1961). In this article I would like to highlight an indirect benefit of tourism for the rest of the economy. It is this: tourism, in the broadest possible sense, affords us physical connectivity, which is critically important in Catalonia’s case. Nowadays physical connectivity means, above all, connectivity by air.

The internet has made immediate communication possible on a global scale, which is a huge leap forward. But, no matter how enthusiastic we are about the internet, it is not enough. Actually, it is not even clear whether the internet fosters dispersion or concentration by allowing us to unplug our workplace from our home. At any rate, physical connectivity is an essential factor in competitiveness and for any city or region to progress. No city or region will be important in the world unless it is easy to get to and it is equally easy to go places, once there. This is the first factor that is looked at whenever a multinational company decides where to set up a new productive unit. I recall how a Genoa businessman once lamented that US shipbuilding companies had moved their HQs to Rome because the Italian capital was easier to travel to from the US (note how air travel means that it is no longer necessary to be located by the sea in order to be well-connected).

Last week I had dinner with a Princeton professor. He had come to Barcelona to give a lecture and his inbound journey couldn’t have been easier. He had arrived on a morning flight from Newark that was packed with cruisers. And this is precisely my point: it is not researchers and business executives that fill up flights, but tourists. If Barcelona’s El Prat airport ranks tenth in Europe it is because Catalonia is a top tourist destination. We could raise our standards in terms of who we want to visit us but, if we wish to preserve our connectivity, we should only do so by one notch.

So why is this particularly important to us? Because nobody will give us connectivity for free. On this point, it is an uphill struggle for us. We bear the consequences of Spain’s extreme centralism. Catalonia’s El Prat airport (a substantial profit-maker for Aena, Spain’s airport operator) is subservient to Madrid’s Barajas airport. Someone has got the idea in their head that in Spain’s model there is an arrivals hub in Madrid from which —if necessary— one can travel anywhere in Spain thanks to a wonderful radial network of high-speed trains. Obviously, you may arrive via Madrid and then head for Barcelona. These days we have had a few thousand Chinese visitors who have done just that (three nights in Madrid plus two in Barcelona). But being a satellite is a handicap. If El Prat was managed purely with Catalonia’s territorial interest in mind, we would be in a much stronger position. Fortunately, visitors are a godsend. Our considerable connectivity is the result of the crowds of visitors that international markets have brought to us and that the industry’s 400,000 employees have managed to woo. We shouldn’t forget that.