Cruise control: Barcelona brings in new restrictions on passenger liners

Barcelona authorities have implemented new regulations to divert cruise ships away from the crowded city center. Here’s what you need to know.

Cruise control: Barcelona brings in new restrictions on passenger liners
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As part of a wave of ongoing plans to combat overtourism in Europe’s most popular urban destinations, Barcelona will permanently restrict cruise ship-access to its congested city-center harbor starting this month.

New rules expected to come into force from October 22, 2023 will relocate most of Barcelona’s cruise-ship activity (including its pollution) away from the busy, central World Trade Center pier. These measures are part of a €265 million project agreed between the Ajuntament de Barcelona (the city council) and Barcelona’s port authorities back in 2018, amid growing concerns about the enormous environmental and social impact of the cruise industry on the Catalan capital and its residents.

The World Trade Center pier is currently Barcelona’s most central wharf, located just a 10-minute walk from La Rambla (which is currently undergoing a culture-focused makeover). From now on, however, cruise ships will no longer be permitted to dock at its North Terminal (Barcelona Nord), which in recent years has become crammed with around 340 annual layovers. Instead, passengers will alight at the newer Moll d’Adossat terminal at the south end of the city (near Montjuïc), then hop on a 30-minute bus transfer to reach the center.

A cyclist rides along a viewpoint overlooking cruise ships docked at the Barcelona Cruise Terminal, Barcelona, Catalonia Spain
Cruise-ship passengers calling in Barcelona for the day have swelled the crowds in the historic center © Angel Garcia/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Ever-growing numbers, ever-shorter trips

According to Spanish newspaper El País, some 2.32 million cruise tourists arrived in Barcelona in 2022, on a total of 805 layovers. While this is lower than the record 3.1 million cruise-ship tourists Barcelona received in 2019 (before the pandemic), this reality still means thousands of extra people each day wandering the already-busy streets of a city with a total population of just 1.63 million. It seems numbers are now on the rise once again: Hosteltur reports that approximately three million cruise-ship visitors are predicted for 2023. 

But most cruise passengers spend just a few hours in Barcelona itself, usually visiting the narrow, often-clogged-up streets of the Barri Gòtic or a major sight such as Antoni Gaudí’s fabled Sagrada Família. Earlier this year, a group of Barcelona residents led a protest calling for a complete ban of cruise ships in Catalonia by 2025. 

At the moment, in addition to diverting cruise ships from the center, the number of them permitted to dock in Barcelona at any one time will eventually be limited to just seven. The World Trade Center’s Southern Terminal (Barcelona Sud) is expected to be closed down, too (though not until 2026). Meanwhile, the now-disused North Terminal area – all sprawling 13,600 sq m (146,000 sq ft) of it – is slated to be transformed for pedestrian use after the America’s Cup in late 2024. In fact, the final boat to dock here departed back in early October, when Portugal-based Mystic Cruises’s World Navigator ship set sail. 

Protesters with STOP CRUISES BCN placards in Barcelona, Catalonia, Spain
Joining destinations elsewhere in Europe, Barcelona has responded to pressure from residents to regulate cruise ships and create more-sustainable tourism © Victor Serri / SOPA Images / LightRocket via Getty Images

Joining a trend

With these new regulations, Barcelona follows the lead of several other European cities that have already restricted cruise-ship action for environmental reasons. Among them is neighboring Palma de Mallorca in the Balearics, which has made a pioneering move to limit cruise arrivals to three per day until at least 2026, with only one slot reserved for vessels carrying over 5000 passengers. In a historic move, Venice also banned large cruise ships from its center in 2021, while Amsterdam introduced similar restrictions in mid-2023 as well.

According to Hosteltur, starting in 2026 there are additional plans for cruise ships arriving in Barcelona to link up with the city’s general electricity network, meaning they will be able use 100% renewable energy while docking here instead of relying on running their own (polluting) engines.

While there is still a long road ahead, this is all welcome news in an enduringly popular city which, like many others around the world, is fighting to find a more sustainable tourism path. 

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