Is Airbnb changing the demographics of the most touristic neighborhoods?

Antonio López-Gay, researcher at the Center for Demographic Studies in Barcelona, looks at the relationship between tourism and population change across Barcelona neighbourhoods.

Neighborhoods and touristic apartments

Cities are becoming a preferred touristic destination, and they are experiencing the emergence of a new source of touristic accommodation. In addition to the general increase in the number of urban hotel rooms, the change in dwelling use, from residential to touristic, is generating a significant impact on the housing system of neighborhoods under high tourism pressure. The extension of new online platforms, such as airbnb or homeaway, to add apartments, or parts of them, to the touristic accommodation supply is creating new dynamics in the housing market of these areas. The higher profit-earning capacity of the touristic apartments leads to a reduction of the housing stock for residential uses and an increase in housing prices.

These shifts could be strengthening new sociodemographic processes in the most touristic neighborhoods. First, the change in the use of dwellings, from residential to touristic, raises the question of direct displacement and population and household losses. Second, the decrease of the residential supply, the increase of housing prices and the coexistence with the touristic environment could be selecting individuals moving into and out of these areas. Such areas commonly experience an ongoing gentrification process.

The impact of tourism on the transformation of certain urban environments is an emergent topic that is driving the attention of social scientists, such as anthropologists, geographers and sociologists. Most address the topic from the gentrification perspective, incorporating the pressure caused by tourism as a force that explains the displacement of low- and middle-class populations and a sociodemographic shift in the composition of the population. These contributions commonly put population change in the spotlight, but they generally lack a deep quantitative analysis to explain in detail the demographic mechanisms behind the processes of depopulation or population substitution. Demographers have the methodological tools and the expertise on the data sources to provide new evidence about this interdisciplinary issue.

Adverse reactions of residents of areas experiencing a dramatic increase of touristic apartments are also becoming more prevalent worldwide. They alert us to the implications of this activity in changing the social fabric and the demographic structures of the neighborhood, and they even use mottos that have strong demographic implications (Figures 1-4). Can we provide an empirical basis for their concerns?



Figure 2: Neighbors carrying trolleys in protests in Venice (Italy), September 13th 2016,


Figure 1: Barcelona 30th August 2014: “+1 touristic apartment – 1 neighbor”


Figure 4: Tourism is pushing us out of from our neighborhoods (Barcelona, May 8th 2016,


Figure 3: An anti-Airbnb sign at a house near the French Quarter and Marigny Triangle,New Orleans (New Orleans, May 5th 2016,

Displacement and population change

In the eyes of a demographer, two main questions arise about the implications of the presence of high touristic activity in particular neighborhoods. The first one deals with direct displacement of population and households as a consequence of the use change of dwellings, from residential to touristic. The second one is linked to the effects of the touristic pressure on the population composition of these areas and on the sociodemographic selection of the residential flows. A recent study analyzing the case of Barcelona (López-Gay and Cócola Gant, 2016) stated that ‘el barri Gòtic’, the neighborhood under the highest touristic pressure in the city, is experiencing unique demographic trends not evident in other gentrified neighborhoods of the city under lower touristic pressure.

Because of the lack of the required license for most of the touristic apartments, estimating the total number of this type of dwelling and its evolution over time is challenging. Data provided by the site is currently the best source to count touristic apartments. According to this database, there are approximately 1,100 touristic apartments in ‘el barri Gòtic’, compared to the 6,400 households living in the area according to the population register. If we include the hotels, the total number of touristic rooms is almost equal to the total population of the neighborhood at around 15,000. This is by far the most intense relation among all the neighborhoods in the city.

The population of ‘el barri Gòtic’ decreased by 8% between 2011 and 2015. In the same period, the total number of households, a better indicator to measure direct displacement and the effect of the dwelling’s change of use, has experienced a 6% decline. This decrease, however, should not be linked to a small capacity of the neighborhood to attract population, because both the intensity of flows moving into and out of the neighborhood are much higher than the average of the other neighborhoods. This trend highlights the high mobility and temporality of the residents of ‘el barri Gòtic’. In terms of the population composition, the neighborhood has experienced important changes in the last decade:

  • The age group 25-39 has experienced a strong increase, and they currently represent 40% of the population. A few years ago, the population over 65 was the most common group in the neighborhood.
  • Despite this increase of adult population, the base of the population pyramid has not experienced any change, and only 8.5% of the population is under 15, the lowest proportion among the 73 neighborhoods of the city. ‘El barri Gòtic’ is also the area with the highest ratio of adults (25-59) to children (0-14): 7.6 compared to the city’s average of 4.1.
  • The increase of the population aged 25-39 is exclusively due to the arrival of foreign nationals, particularly Western European citizens. This origin currently represents more than one third of the population in this age group.
  • The contribution of local population (born within Barcelona’s province) at the age group 25-39 is extremely low, representing only the 17% of the population.
  • The population decline at the oldest age group is not only caused by the effect of mortality. Negative net migration in the two extremes of the population pyramid is remarkably high.
  • Only the highly educated young-adult population is currently registering positive net migration.


Are touristification and gentrification producing the same types of sociodemographic shifts? In the case of Barcelona, there are noticeable differences among the processes that gentrified and touristified neighborhoods are experiencing. First, the population and household decline that ‘el barri Gòtic’ is experiencing is not necessarily a trend that other gentrified neighborhoods in the city as Gracia, Poble Nou or Sant Antoni have experienced. Second, the small presence of local adults is definitely another remarkable difference. In other gentrified neighborhoods of Barcelona the presence of other Western European citizens is high, but there is no place comparable to ‘el barri Gòtic’ (Figure 1). It seems clear that moving into ‘el barri Gòtic’ is not in the urban imagination of young-adult locals when they decide where to move. Housing prices does not seem to be an explanatory variable behind this feature, as prices are similar in all these gentrified neighborhoods. Third, the extremely low presence of children and, fourth, the strong negative net migration of elderly are also singular characteristics that are not found, at these levels, in other gentrified areas of the city. However, the high proportion of young adults and the capacity to attract and retain the highest educated are common with the features of gentrified neighborhoods.

The observation of these distinctive shifts has brought us to talk about the existence of a tourisTRIfication process in ‘el barri Gòtic’ which is changing the sociodemographic structure of the population in a unique way. As far as we know, this is the first attempt to identify and sociodemographic changes in neighborhoods under high tourism pressure from a demographic perspective, so we are cautious in our conclusions. Further analysis about the causal relations between tourism and demographic changes is needed as well as the effect of housing and environment variables. More empirical evidence about what is happening to the population living in neighborhoods under high touristic pressure in other cities around the world would also help to check if the features found in our study are international trends or confined to ‘el barri Gòtic’.


Figure 5: Proportion of locals and European citizens by age in “el barri Gòtic” and in three other gentrified neighborhoods.

Antonio López-Gay is a researcher at the Center for Demographic Studies. He is the principal investigator of the MOVIPOL project (“Residential mobility, sociodemographic selection and population substitution: towards the polarization of the Spanish cities?”). In the context of this project he conducts research on the territorial patterns of residential mobility, the sociodemographic transformation of urban areas and the impact of processes as gentrification or touristification in the sociodemographic composition of the population. Other interests deal with patterns of union formation and family change from a worldwide perspective focusing in the intra-regional diversity, integration and dissemination of census data in the context of the IECM project. For feedback, contact:

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: