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Too Many Tourists: Is Europe Closed for Business?

Tourists vacationing in Europe are being accused of Tourism Terrorism and subject to a less than warm welcome from locals. What are the issues? And how did it come to this?

(Image: Wolfblur/Pixabay CC0)


In Barcelona summer 2017, site-seeing tourists thought they were the victims of a terrorist attack when masked men boarded their open top tourist bus, slashing its tyres and spray painting "tourism kills neighbourhoods" across the windscreen. In Mallorca that same summer, flares were set off outside a restaurant as anti-tourist activists stormed in. Across Spain, hotels have been paint bombed, their windows smashed and rental bikes damaged.


"Why call it tourist season if we can't shoot them?"

The group responsible for the masked attacks, Arran, a youth wing of the Catalan political party CUP (Popular Unity Candidacy), is unrepentant. They are concerned at how the lives of locals are being negatively impacted by the authorities reluctance to reign in mass tourism.


Their methods are extreme but they aren't alone in their anger. Other community groups have also held protests to reclaim beaches and streets. Nor is it confined to Spain. Despite soaring summer temperatures, citizens in the popular tourist towns of Dubrovnik and Venice have also marched against an industry that they say is destroying their city and way of life.


For the past couple of years, Europe has emerged as one of the world's hottest destinations. Terrorism concerns abroad, an increase in Chinese tourists and the success of blockbuster films and series such as "Game of Thrones" have all combined to cause a recent spike in European visitors.


But these happy vacationers are finding themselves embroiled in an increasingly adverse stand off with locals who simply don't want them there.


WHAT'S THE ISSUE WITH MASS TOURISM?


In the abstract, most people welcome tourists and acknowledge that it is, for many places, an economic boost. However, you can have too much of a good thing.


Unchecked and insufficiently planned tourism can negatively affect the local economy. It pushes up housing and rental prices, increases the costs of goods and services and pushes down wages by employing cheap labour.


Hotels may seemingly spring up 'overnight' but, in reality, planning and development can take years to be visitor ready. In the meantime, it isn't keeping up with demand so entrepreneurial landlords step in. Flats are let to tourists because of the higher short term rent they bring in and, as a result, more tourists are coming into residential areas.


Locals become frustrated not only with the overcrowding and price hikes but with the lack of respect. Tourists are seen, at best, as superficial, merely interested in taking snapshots of a film set or main site and not interested in the culture, the food, the people or anything else that locals feel 'makes' their city. At worst, visitors to the city are accused of dirty and antisocial behaviour such as littering, defecating in public and being annoyingly drunk.


Not all these issues are the responsibility of tourists. Many can be laid squarely on city planners and authorities. Insufficient infrastructure, whether it's a lack of accommodation, transport or medieval town planning, means that the place isn't able to cope with tourism on an industrial scale.


A TALE OF 3 CITIES


Venice, Italy

(Image: Alois Wonaschuetz/Pixabay CC0)


With its intricate network of canals, crumbling Byzantine architecture and timeless charm, the sinking city of merchants has been drawing dreamy travellers for centuries. But Venice, already fragile under the threat of being swallowed by the sea, is particularly vulnerable to the impact of mass tourism.


The city has a local population of only 55,000 yet sees 30 million tourists a year, 70,000 a day. The effects of mass tourism, the overcrowding and high prices, cause 1000 residents to flee the city each year. In 2016, Venice was warned by UNESCO that its World Heritage City status is in danger if it does not more sustainably manage tourism. Venice has already been placed on a 'watch' list by the World Monument Fund.


Visitors overcrowd plazas and pedestrian bridges and public transport. They are accused of disrespecting monuments as they picnic and relieve themselves against them. Many of the tourists are 'day trippers' who spend less in the local economy and have little time to see anything beyond the main island. But Venice is creaking under the weight of them.


A 'locals first' initiative on the Vaporetto water bus now gives local residents priority boarding in the car-less city. A crack down on illegal B&Bs is also intended to relieve rental pressure. But these fixes have done little to quell the locales main beef: the cruise liners.


Massive cruise ships bring 10s of thousands of tourists to the city each day. Though only a fraction of the total tourist numbers, the ships are considered an eyesore and an environmental hazard. Calls for a cruise ban are, for the moment, being ignored. Cruise ships provide a lucrative business in port services and any form of a ban has wider implications. Venice effectively props up the entire Adriatic cruise industry as the ancient, charming city is the main drawcard.


Dubrovnik, Croatia

(image: Timur V Vuronkov / Wikimedia CC3.0)


Perched over the Adriatic, the medieval Croatian city of Dubrovnik is one of a number of locations that have been made notoriously famous by the "Game of Thrones" series. Its port side position also makes it an attractive stop on the cruise circuit with 800,000 cruise passengers arriving in 2016 - around a third of total visitors.


In the past few years, tourist numbers have skyrocketed. So has congestion. The short layover of the cruise ships and the popularity of visiting the medieval film set sees thousands try to cram into the small walled Old Town. In 2017, the Mayor of Dubrovnik, Andro Vlahusic, made the call to limit the number of tourists entering the Old Town.


According to officials, the Old Town should only hold 8000 visitors at a time within its walls. Above that number, it's considered too dangerous for people and infrastructure. Surveillance cameras on the gates monitor visitor activity and allow access to be slowed or blocked when the streets become too crowded. Residents and people who have pre-purchased Dubrovnik city cards can still be allowed unfettered access.


However, 8000 people within an area with a 2km circumference is still a lot. Locals complain of the constant noise; the number of hostels and pub crawls; the disappearing local character; and how little money those who just come to take photos actually spend.


Barcelona, Spain

(image: PierreLaurentDurantin/Pixabay CC0)


The Spanish have been complaining about "too many tourists" in their cities for several years now, but it's only since 2017 that protests have become 'violent'. Spain receives over 75 million visitors a year, with some 30 million descending on the Catalonian coastal city of Barcelona. In this city of 1.6 million, tourism is a large economic driver generating 18% of commercial revenue. Even so, managing tourism is considered to be one of the most pressing issues to locals.


As with other mass tourism cities, locals are finding it increasingly difficult to live in Barcelona. Not only are the streets unpleasantly overcrowded, particularly in the sweaty summer months, but prices are high and wages low - particularly in hospitality where foreigners are willing to undercut local wages.


Barcelonians are also finding themselves out on the street as flats are let privately for short term accommodation and residential buildings effectively turn into hotels. Graffiti has labelled tourists as 'terrorists' who are 'invading' their cities and towns and killing off neighbourhoods.


Fed up, locals have taken their protests to the streets where stunts involving masked men with flare guns have caused tourists to think they were in the midst of a terrorist attack and international papers question whether tourists are 'safe'.


A tourist 'bed tax', introduced in 2016, has done little to dampen the heat of residents as illegal private lets are not captured. The new urban planning law for tourist accommodation, which came into effect in 2017 and proposed a moratorium on building new hotels and licensing B&Bs, may be subject to a similar issue. Officially, Barcelona only has around 120,000 beds in hotels and legal tourist apartments. The reality is there are many thousands more.


THE WAY FORWARD


Cracking down on private B&B rentals, foreign buyers and property speculation may help to reduce the impact on locals losing out on accommodation. But the price of housing, though significant, is only one of the issues.


Building more visitor accommodation is not the answer if it maintains overwhelming occupancy levels that locals oppose on the basis of noise, overcrowding, antisocial behaviour, price rises, and generally change the entire character of a place.


In order to drive down crippling visitor numbers, it may not be enough to simply tax tourists a little more. Many will simply absorb the cost or cut back the money they spend at local businesses while on their holiday. At some point, booming tourist centres actually have to consider limits on tourists to curb unrest and damage.


Permits and pre-purchased tickets are regularly required in certain environmental parks, at popular museums, for festivals and tours. But it's not something that has been applied to an entire town or city before, at least not one that is a modern, living area.


This is because a cap on visitor numbers is almost impossible to manage. People come to the city not only as tourists but for business and to visit family and friends. They come by air, by sea and overland. They stay in official, and unofficial, accommodation. They visit more than one place. The idea of a cap requires some sort of checking procedure that is officious, cumbersome and repugnant, particularly in Europe, to the idea of freedom of movement.


While city planners and locals argue over the benefits and problems of tourism overload, a great deal of the problem can be self-managed by visitors. As travellers we can limit our impact by how we behave: by choosing to be more respectful of the local culture, of contributing to the economy in a positive way and, in many cases, simply going somewhere else.


Cities such as Venice, Barcelona and Dubrovnik have stood for thousands of years, they'll still be there after August or when the Game of Thrones hype dies down. In the meantime, there are literally thousands of other places to explore.


 

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