Ships of the US Navy Sixth Fleet visit Barcelona, Spain, in 1956. 

How US sailors kicked off Barcelona's tourism industry in the 1950s

At first, sailors with the US 6th Fleet brought in a flair of modernity and freedom. Over time, public opinion toward their influence in Spain changed. 

The World

Ships of the US Navy 6th Fleet visit Barcelona, Spain, in 1956. 

US Navy/Public Domain

In January 1951, when the United States 6th Fleet pulled up to the Barcelona port for the first time, 10,000 sailors from the US Navy disembarked and found a rather gray and poor city.

At the time, Barcelona, Spain, was still recovering from the 1936-1939 Spanish Civil War. 

At first, the sailors' presence brought in a flair of modernity and freedom, but over time, public opinion toward the sailors' influence changed. 

Nick Lloyd, who leads historical tours about the Spanish Civil War in downtown Barcelona, said that one of the first things they would have seen were buildings in ruins.

“This area, The Raval, was one of the most heavily bombed of the war, and it was probably left in ruins as a punishment,” Lloyd said.

Next to the port stands a controversial 200-foot statue of Christopher Columbus pointing out to sea. Behind the statue is the famous pedestrian street Las Ramblas, full of shops selling postcards and kitschy souvenirs.

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Before the COVID-19 pandemic, Spain was one of the top tourism destinations in the world, welcoming in around 83 million tourists a year. In 2020, however, that number shot down to 19 million, causing many businesses to close and thousands to lose their jobs. The country’s economy relies heavily on tourism, accounting for roughly 13% of its GDP.

Lloyd said the touristy Barcelona we know of today is, in large part, a result of the 37 years the American 6th Fleet spent stationed here.

“...[T]he American 6th Fleet, on top of being a military operation, was also functioning — at least within the context of their stay in Barcelona — as a little bit of a cruise ship."

Nick Lloyd, historical tour guide, Barcelona, Spain

“Because the American  6th Fleet, on top of being a military operation, was also functioning — at least within the context of their stay in Barcelona — as a little bit of a cruise ship,” Lloyd said.

The sailors are considered to be the first mass tourists to arrive in Barcelona at a time when Spain, under the leadership of fascist dictator Francisco Franco, was geopolitically cut off from most of the world.

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That all changed in 1950, when the US government and Franco’s regime made a pact that allowed the 6th Fleet to use seven Spanish ports in exchange for humanitarian aid and military support. Lloyd said this allowed Franco — who continued to torture and kill political dissidents — to stay in power for nearly 30 more years.

But the arrival of the 6th Fleet also brought an unexpected flow of cash to Barcelona’s poorest neighborhoods, kicking off leisure and entertainment businesses built around the young men.

"[The sailors brought] in sort of a whiff of modernity and ideas of freedom, which just didn’t exist under the Franco regime.”

Nick Lloyd, historical tour guide, Barcelona, Spain

“They bring in the first Zippos, rock-and-roll records, jeans, boxer shorts, the first nail clippers,” Lloyd said. “And [they bring] in sort of a whiff of modernity and ideas of freedom, which just didn’t exist under the Franco regime.”

To this day, the financial and cultural impact the US 6th Fleet had on Barcelona is fairly unknown to locals. Writer and journalist Xavier Theros did an in-depth investigation in 2010 — which he turned into the only existing book on the topic, written in the regional language of Catalan.

“It was because of the Cold War and the supposed threat of communism that the US made a deal with a fascist dictator who, years earlier, it had condemned,” Theros said.

But, he added, the sailors themselves had no real political ties — they were young men in their late teens and early 20s who had just left home for the first time.

“It was like a party,” Theros said. “Barcelona welcomed them with open arms. Many shops hung up signs in badly spelled English.”

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The first bilingual menus were introduced at restaurants, with food options changing rapidly to meet the sailors’ needs. Before their arrival, there were no sandwiches or donuts in Barcelona. In 1953, Coca-Cola opened its first factory in Spain as a response to the increase in demand.

For the sailors — who arrived with American dollars — Barcelona was dirt cheap, even considering the price hikes that locals gave them. Theros said many sex workers were able to pay their way out of poverty by charging six times as much as they would the locals.

“Barcelona’s sex workers were the first to learn English,” Theros said. “They would find amateur teachers and hold classes in street cafés.”

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But over the decades, public opinion toward the sailors’ presence shifted. By the 1980s — with Franco dead and democracy installed — locals began to see them as a symbol of American imperialism and protested their stay.

The 6th Fleet left Barcelona for good after an attack on a sailors’ social club left one man dead and several injured.

“They went from being idolized to being the bad guys,” Theros said. “But they left behind a tourism industry that continued to grow in their absence.