Yannick Laclau wrote about Barcelona, a city that Bob and I love. But Yannick’s news was a sad consequence of the ostrich hiding its head in the sand. He wrote that Barcelona is close to losing its status as host to the Mobile World Congress, partly because of street crime. If the conference does go elsewhere, it will be concrete evidence of the seriousness of Barcelona’s problem, which everyone knows about but few do anything about. (As if endless reports of robberies and muggings are not evidence.) If one conference pulls out, more are sure to follow. That ought to yank the ostrich’s head up. But as he just gazes bleary-eyed (“Hey, where’d everyone go?”) at lower tourism numbers, Barcelona’s convention bureau will have a helluva time convincing group organizers that the city is safe.
What a shame that attendees might miss fabulous Barcelona. Bob and I visit often. It’s one of our favorite cities for dining, atmosphere, and thiefhunting. But I must admit, while we hunt thieves in cities around the world, Barcelona is one of our best laboratories. Kharem, the thief I wrote about here operates in Barcelona. There’s tons about Barcelona featured in our book, Travel Advisory.
Some cities and tourism bureaus take a pro-active stance in fighting tourist-related crime in an aggressive manner, by warning people, taking good care of victims, and prosecuting perps. Others sweep it under the carpet and suppress press articles. Negative publicity has a devastating effect on tourism: look at Kenya, Aruba, and South Africa, three dream destinations whose reputations have been pretty ruined by crime.
Honolulu and Orlando, as opposite examples of tourism destinations with their share of crime, fight hard to combat it. If you’re a victim of crime in these cities, you’re so well-taken care of that you leave with good feelings anyway. And, you’re likely to return for another vacation there, all expenses paid, in order to testify against the thief.
Eight or so years ago, we worked on a (major cruise line’s) ship, on which we entertained with a comedy pickpocket show, and also lectured passengers on how to avoid street theft. We gave examples and showed our own video of crime in action. The ship’s hotel director, who lived in Barcelona, was deeply offended that we showed actual examples from his city, which he insisted was one of the safest in the world! Later, we were told outright that the cruise line would prefer to keep their passengers ignorant of the dangers of the ship’s ports of call, rather than expose the “frightening” and “ominous” reality of travel.
Numerous factors help explain Barcelona’s rampant thievery. Tax and immigration issues, packed prisons, overextended judicial systems, law enforcement budget constraints, high unemployment, all contribute to the persistence of street crime. But when the courts give a pickpocket a monetary fine to pay, how do they expect him to obtain the funds?
So is Barcelona right to just let itself be what it will be? Do officials realize (or care) that most visitors are not as city-savvy as its locals are, and are thereby more apt to become victims? Individuals like Canadian Mary Chipman, who broke her hip when a bag snatcher pulled her to the ground, don’t matter. Neither do the hundred or so individuals documented on Street Scams of Barcelona, or any like them. But when conventions start pulling out, perhaps local businesses will hurt enough to instigate some changes. We shall see.
Never mind. I will continue to visit Barcelona and recommend it as an exciting place to visit. And, there’s one failsafe way to avoid pickpockets.
Feb. 21, 2009 update: what happened one year later?