Barcelona, where protestors have staged riots after nine Catalan separatist leaders were sentenced to between nine and 13 years in prison for illegally supporting a referendum on independence, may not be the safest place to travel at the moment.
Hundreds of flights to the Catalonian capital on the Eastern coast of Spain have been canceled as fires have raged across city streets. Going on five days, the demonstrations have led to roadblocks, disrupted train services and mass vandalism. Last night, more than 50 separate fires were reported in downtown Barcelona, including at least 12 cars that had been set ablaze.
In clashes with law enforcement, protesters have thrown Molotov cocktails and shot fireworks at police helicopters overhead. One desperate father was shown on TV running from a burning building with an infant in his arms. There were more than 33 arrests last night and roughly 100 people were treated by emergency medical teams, including 30 police officers who were injured during the confrontations.
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Nine Catalan leaders were jailed in Spain this week over their roles in a failed push for regional independence two years ago. They're appealing for peaceful protests after two consecutive nights of violent unrest in Barcelona, following the announcement of their jail sentence. Video: Elena Morresi
College students have staged sit-ins on campuses and nearly 25,000 students and supporters joined a rally at midday in front of Barcelona city hall, according to municipal police. Mass demonstrations have been called for tomorrow as a general strike is planned across the region. Despite pleas from the national government for demonstrators to protest peacefully, local officials have at times sanctioned and even encouraged civil disobedience.
The UK Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) has issued a travel warning, which states that “further gatherings and demonstrations are likely to take place” and that travelers “should exercise caution in the vicinity of demonstrations as they may occur with little or no warning.” Meanwhile, the US Department of State has advised tourists to “avoid the areas of the demonstrations,” “be aware of your surroundings,” “keep a low profile” and “notify friends and family of your safety”.
Local tourism boards are concerned that travelers will avoid visiting the city. Gremi, a hotel association, has warned that the "very serious" incidents are "damaging Barcelona's reputation" and "can lead to a serious direct impact on tourism revenue." Adding, "We respect the right to protest, but these should be made in a spirit of coexistence, peacefully and without causing civil unrest."
In a televised address last night, Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez called on the pro-independence Catalan president, Quim Torra, to explicitly condemn the use of violence. In reference to his party’s unsuccessful attempt to secede from Spain, Sánchez added: “No leader can camouflage their failure behind curtains of smoke and fire.”
The prime minister said the government would defend Spain’s constitution and peaceful coexistence but would not be drawn into exacerbating tensions. “The state will always guarantee the rights of those who wish to protest their ideas peacefully,” he said. “But organized violent groups and those who try to break democratic laws will not achieve their aims … The only hope of those violent groups is that we’ll make mistakes and become over-excited and divided. They want us to fall for their provocations and feed a violent spiral.”
Barcelona has been one of the most popular destinations in Europe for international tourism. The number of overnight tourists in Barcelona reached nearly 9 million in 2017, which didn’t include those staying in non-hotel accommodation. In total, an estimated 32 million tourists visited Barcelona in 2018. It remains to be seen how recent protests will affect this year’s averages.