Barcelona: Before and After the ’92 Olympic Games

by Iris Hillier and Rafael Isún
Feb 2010
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Barcelona’s success as a tourist destination has only come about in recent times – in fact since the city hosted the Olympic Games in 1992. However it has not been all plain sailing. This article discusses the key factors associated with transforming Barcelona from a tourism backwater to the twelfth most popular city destination in the world, and the fifth most popular in Europe, in less than 20 years. It briefly illustrates significant events in Barcelona’s history, discusses urban regeneration and development and explains how the city overcame difficulties after the Games, particularly in terms of the over-supply of accommodation. The significant impact that a well-organised, well-resourced and dynamically-led Olympic delivery organisation can have on the success of the Games is also illustrated.

‘On October 14th 1986, during a dinner in Atlanta with top executives of the American hotel industry, someone asked me where I was from. When I said I was from Barcelona, some of the more informed knew Barcelona was somewhere in Europe whilst others thought it was a province of Mexico. Clearly, Barcelona was an unknown city despite its 2000 years of history, its location and richness in culture and architecture. Three days later, Barcelona beat Paris for the bid of the Olympic Games of 1992. Today, 17 years later, I cannot imagine having a similar conversation as the one I had during that dinner.’ Rafael Isún, a Barcelona-based tourism consultant.

Today Barcelona is the twelfth most popular city destination in the world [1], and the 1992 Olympic Games provided the springboard for its development.

The Olympic Games provide the opportunity for the host destination to showcase its culture, resources and values at an international level. Tourism, in turn, is a unique economic tool in its ability to translate that global attention into long-term economic growth.

Barcelona is often held up internationally as a prime example of how a host destination can harness the global attention associated with hosting the Olympic Games to provide a step-change in their tourism economy. However, while hosting the Olympic Games did indeed provide a strong catalyst for this transformation, there were a number of other factors that were equally important both before and after 1992.

There is almost universal agreement that the 1992 Barcelona Olympics were one of the most successful in modern history and the one that every other host nation aspires to emulate [2]. It is therefore worthwhile detailing the key factors that made these Olympics so successful, both in their delivery and tourism development for the city.

One of the most important, and often overlooked, success factors of the Barcelona Games was the historic context.

After 40 years of dictatorship, the transition to democracy in Spain that started with Francisco Franco’s death in 1975 and was only completed with the Government election in October 1982. Then, in 1986, Spain took another giant step forward in rejoining the modern world through the European Community. Clearly, joining the European Union facilitated political, social and economic progress and that, without a doubt, was on the minds of the Olympic Committee when Barcelona was awarded the Games that year.

The Barcelona Olympics, held just 10 years after the establishment of democracy, allowed the residents of the city (and the country as a whole) to show their passion for change and how they had embraced democracy and modernity. The year, 1992, also coincided with Seville successfully hosting the International Exhibition and Madrid being the European Capital of Culture. In addition, Spain was also celebrating the 500th anniversary of the discovery of the Americas that year. This all set the scene for people in Spain to work together to show the world that their country had ‘arrived’.

The coming together of different political and social classes in a unique project that was supported by everyone was a key element for the achievement of the Games. In fact, almost for the first time since 1975, all political administrations (state, autonomic and municipal) worked together, putting aside their ideological differences in order to make the Games a success.

Pere Durán, General Director of Turisme de Barcelona says:

'The entire Spanish society was involved and looking at Barcelona to represent on a worldwide level the desire of all Spaniards to become a modern society that was preparing for the arrival of the 21st century.'

The 1992 Olympic Games had an enormous impact on urban development in Barcelona, transforming it from an industrial city to one than combines industry with art, culture and commerce. This was achieved through the amendment and application of a previously proposed ambitious urban regeneration plan which included improvements to the city’s transport infrastructure, public services and amenities as well as Olympic-related facilities.

According to Pere Durán:

'The Games were the excuse, perhaps the incentive, for a general process of analysis of the city in general and in particular of its role as a tourist centre.'

Barcelona was opened to the sea with the construction of the Olympic Village and Olympic Port in Poblenou, a run down, post-industrial neighbourhood. Various new centres were created, and modern sports facilities were built in the Olympic zones of Montjuïc, Diagonal, and Vall d'Hebron. The construction of ring roads around the city helped reduce the density of the traffic, and the El Prat airport was modernised and expanded as two new terminals were opened. New hotels were built and several old ones refurbished.

Historic buildings in the Gothic Quarter and on Montjuic Mountain were restored, while world famous architects were invited to design new buildings. For example, Santiago Calatrava designed the Montjuic Telecommunications Tower, Vittorio Gregotti designed the new Montjuic Stadium and I M Pei designed the International Trade Centre at the port. This development was undertaken not just to support the staging of the Olympics, but for the city itself, with one eye on it being transformed into a future business and tourism destination.

As well as ensuring the success of the Games, the focus of the regeneration work was on determining where the long-term benefits could be derived from the funds invested. As Ferran Brunet, researcher for the Centre of Olympic Studies explains:

'It is not just about the event itself or the urban investments but also about foreign investment before, during and after the event.'

Central to the success of any Olympics is the host’s Olympic Organisation Committee. In Barcelona, the organisation of the Games was led by the COOB (the Barcelona Olympic Organiser Committee). Granted considerable powers and a significant budget, the work of the Committee was another key success factor.

Miguel Botella points out in his book on the success of the Barcelona Olympics [3] the significant impact that a well-organised, well-resourced and dynamically-led Olympic delivery organisation such as COOB can have on delivering a successful Games. The outputs delivered by COOB that Botella highlights as being of particular significance include:

  • harnessing the public by employing over 32,000 dedicated volunteer staff
  • having a detailed and tested master plan for delivering the games
  • decentralising the operational phase so managers could deal with problems as they arose
  • incorporating new technology wherever possible
  • working closely with companies in developing sponsorship opportunities
  • developing institutional co-operation between all public bodies.

The last important success factor associated with Barcelona Olympics was media coverage, especially by journalists from outside Western Europe.

It became clear that a large majority of the journalists had not visited Barcelona before and did not have high expectations of the city. There were therefore surprised by its cultured and cosmopolitan nature and the celebratory atmosphere created by residents – the city itself became the star of the Games. Whilst it could be said that the host city and its culture is the focus of attention at all Olympics, the situation in 1992 was quite unusual: it could be considered that Barcelona itself upstaged Olympic events, but on the other hand the Olympics created modern Barcelona.

The local media, after years of being sceptical as to whether the Games could be staged in the city, also decided to wholeheartedly support the Olympics.

The net result of these factors was that, after the Games, Barcelona was on the tourist map of hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of people around the world who, until then, did not have any idea of its existence. The city was thought of as one of Europe’s ‘best hidden secrets’. It was vibrant and modern with an extraordinary architecture, a high level of gastronomy and beaches accessible by underground. It was considered to be just a matter of time before Barcelona would become an attractive tourist destination and, when it did, everyone concluded that this was solely due to hosting the Olympics.

However, this was not the complete story.

Once the celebrations were finished, the hangover set in. The world’s attention turned to the post-Gulf War crisis and there was no real ‘after games’ plan in place to capitalise on the unquestionable success of the Olympics.

The impact of the Barcelona Olympics was considerable, especially on the hotel sector. In 1990 Barcelona had a total of 118 hotels, between them providing 10,265 rooms and a total of 18,569 beds. By 1992 the number of hotels had risen to 148, with 13,352 rooms and a total of 25,055 beds, in the expectation that there would be a boom in tourism during and after the games. However, hotels that had an average annual occupancy of 80% before the Olympic Games, now found that they had less than 50% occupancy. This, in turn, caused prices to fall with the very real prospect that the city would fade back into obscurity.

This sudden downturn in the tourism market led to a process of reflection which proved to be pivotal to the future of the city. Although the first meetings between Barcelona’s City Hall (represented by the Patronat Municipal de Turisme) and the Official Chamber of Commerce, Industry and Navigation (represented by its Tourism Committee), to consider the city’s future as a tourist centre were held in 1987, it was not until the end of 1993 that the Turisme de Barcelona consortium was formed. This proved to be a turning point.

Turisme de Barcelona is a combination of public and private sector interests. Its General Council is presided over by the Mayor of Barcelona, while its Executive Committee is headed by the president of the Chamber of Commerce. The organisation aims to bring together all the public and private bodies with an interest in the tourist sector through these two institutions. The new organisation was to play a central role in the future development of the city as a tourist destination.

Prior to its formation, promotion of Barcelona as a tourist destination was undertaken by the Mayor’s office and had been generic and relatively unsuccessful. Under Turisme de Barcelona, with increased industry input, much more sophisticated and targeted marketing activity was introduced. Increased market research was undertaken, specific promotions developed for different market segments and services and facilities were developed that catered for these segments due to the co-ordination between marketing and the industry.

Thanks to its abundant hotel offer, new meeting and conventions facilities were developed for the business market. The city’s true arrival as a major conference destination came in 2004 when the International Congress and Convention Association (ICCA) study [4] found that Barcelona was the world’s leading destination for conferences.

Meanwhile the new port facilities developed for the Olympics were used to start a cruise market – something that had been practically nonexistent before 1992. As a result, Barcelona is now one of the leading cruise destinations in Europe with facilities that can cater for up to 26,000 passengers daily.

Furthermore, Turisme de Barcelona created specific departments including a department for tour operators that made sure that Barcelona was included in hundreds of tour operator brochures. As a result, Barcelona became one of the main city break destinations in Europe.

An effective press department was also established that has resulted in the continual flow of thousands of journalists through the city – more than 2,000 journalist were hosted in Barcelona last year. This generates thousands of articles in magazines and newspapers all over the word, keeping Barcelona at the forefront of travellers' minds when choosing a destination.

After the collapse of the tourist sector, and under the leadership of Turisme de Barcelona, the tourist sector of Barcelona, specifically hoteliers and inbound tour operators put aside their personal interests and began to heavily invest in promotional activity in order to capitalise on the success of the Games before the recognition faded.

As a consequence, the presence of Barcelona’s tourism operators at trade shows, particularly in the business tourism sector, was overwhelming. For example, at the 1994 ITME Fair in Chicago which, together with EIBTM, was the most important business tourism trade show in the world, the Barcelona Convention Bureau’s stand included more than ten Barcelona based hotel companies plus a range of inbound tour operators. This provided buyers with a ‘total destination offer’ that could not be match by other exhibitors.

The main objective of these activities was to show the diversity of Barcelona’s tourism offering and package it in ways that make it easier for buyers. In other words, thanks to careful market segmentation, Barcelona changed its tourism approach from the traditional ‘macro’ to a new ‘micro’ approach. However, the success of these efforts did not materialise until 1995/1996, when hotel occupancies and a general interest for the city finally began to increase.

The turnaround in Barcelona’s tourism industry really took off with the arrival of the budget airlines. With the Olympics, El Prat airport underwent major development with the modernisation and expansion of the existing terminal and the construction of the other two others, included jetways for direct access to the aircraft. This gave the city a good aviation infrastructure but, in 1992 national governments in Europe were empowered to reserve access to national airspace for their favoured airlines. As a result, Iberia dominated the Barcelona market and did little to fully utilise the new facilities.

The change came in 1997 with the deregulation of Europe's domestic travel markets. This enabled budget airlines to establish and compete with the national carriers which were used to having a virtual monopoly in their home markets. This deregulation of the aviation sector coincided perfectly with the surge in Turisme de Barcelona’s tourism marketing work.

Pere Durán comments on the arrival of the low-cost airlines:

'Due to Barcelona’s market segmentation, the low-cost airlines became interested in a potential new destination, particularly for the city break segment, and began to fly to Barcelona El Prat Airport. But the demand was already there, created by the various activities carried out by Turisme de Barcelona.'

So, was it the Olympics that turned Barcelona into one of the world’s top tourism destinations? Or was it Turisme de Barcelona and budget airlines?

Certainly the 1992 Olympic Games offered Barcelona the opportunity to rediscover itself, draw on its existing resources and create new ones. Important investments in infrastructure suddenly revealed attractive neighbourhoods close to the Mediterranean ocean, which, before the Games, were considered marginal areas. Add to that the historical context, and the stage was set for the Olympics to put Barcelona on the international tourism map forever.

However, it is also clear that while the Olympics focused everyone’s attention on the city, this did not in itself generate the tourism legacy that we see today. It needed the actions taken by the tourism industry after the Games, and in particular the creation of Turisme de Barcelona to turn the opportunity afforded by the Games into a sustainable long-term economic industry. But even then, Turisme de Barcelona’s efforts would have had limited impact had it not been for the deregulation of the aviation sector in 1997.

So the truth is somewhere in between. The Olympics certainly provide an unprecedented opportunity for a destination to stand out on the international stage. However, it needs a well-resourced, co-ordinated and motivated tourist board to leverage this opportunity. And there needs to be a high-quality transport infrastructure in place to turn the marketing activity into actual visitors. Without doubt, it was a question of ‘right time, right place’ for Barcelona with all these factors coming together.

A very good lesson for the UK, leading up to the London 2012 Olympics, can be found here. While the opportunities are similar, the funding of the national tourist boards is being reduced by 20% and any increase in aviation capacity is being resisted by all political parties. Unless these factors change, the UK should not expect the same tourism legacy as Barcelona.

  1. Top City Destinations Rankings. 2008. Euromonitor International
  2. DCMS (2006). Barcelona’s Regeneration a Beacon for London and Britain. Jowell and Coe
  3. Miquel de Moragas Spà & Miquel Botella (eds.) (1995).The keys to success: the social, sporting, economic and communications impact of Barcelona '92. Bellaterra: Servei de Publicacions de la Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona.
  4. Publicacions de la Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona. ICCA DATA report. The International Meetings Market 1995-2004

  1. D. Pedro Jesús Jiménez Martín: Nuevas perspectivas sociales de los juegos olímpicos: EL turismo
  2. John MacAloon: Barcelona '92: the perspective of cultural anthropology
  3. Pere Duran, General Director of Turisme de Barcelona and author of ‘The Impact of the Olympic Games on Tourism’
  4. Beatriz Garcia: Barcelona '92
  5. Ferran Brunet, reseacher at the Centre of Olympic Studies: ¿Unos juegos rentables? Article published in El Pais, October 11th 2009

Iris Hillier

Iris has been developing her professional skills during the last fifteen years in the areas of Sales, Marketing and Communication, occupying managerial roles in different European countries. Her experience includes the European launch campaign of Canada 3000 Airlines and the launch of free newspaper Metro in Barcelona, Madrid and Paris. At THR, a Barcelona based Tourism Consultancy, she managed the marketing department and has been responsible for tourism projects in both the public and private sector. She is one of the founding partners of VERUM Global Hotel Development which brings together professionals with solid expertise and knowledge in the hotel sector to provide turnkey hotel projects.

Rafael Isún

Rafael has extensive experience in sales and marketing working for companies within the hotel and tourism sector such as Viajes Mediterráneo, Hotel Majestic and Derby Hotels Collection. Besides being general manager of Design Hotels he has been a member of the board of directors of Small Luxury Hotels of the World as Regional Director of Europe and Africa. During the last three years Rafael has been managing director of Dream Resorts Factory in THR, a Barcelona based tourism consultancy. He is one of the founding partners of VERUM Global Hotel Development which brings together professionals with solid expertise and knowledge in order to provide turnkey hotel projects.