The tourism backlash

European tourist destinations have witnessed a wave of protest this summer from locals who claim that increasing visitor numbers are destroying their neighbourhoods.

Barcelona, Palma, Bilbao, San Sebastian, Dubrovnik, Venice, Lisbon – all destinations which have long been popular with tourists from around the world, renowned for their hospitality. But the summer of 2017 has seen them united by the increasing levels of anger among local residents who are feeling overwhelmed by the impact of tourism on where they live. The phrase “overtourism” has passed in to everday use and become a popular hashtag. All the cities named above have seen anti-tourism demonstrations in the last few weeks, and some of them have turned pretty nasty.

In Barcelona, protestors slashed the tyres of an open-top bus and spray-painted across its windscreen “El Turisme Mata Els Barris” – Catalan for “Tourism Kills Neighbourhoods”. Barcelona is the 20th most visited city in the world, and the growth in visitor numbers to the city has been astonishing, largely thanks to a combination of cheap flights and the growth of Airbnb and other similar platforms. The city received 27 million tourists in 2012, and more than 34 million in 2016 – an increase of more than 25 per cent in four years.

Other cities are experiencing similar problems. “In July and August it’s like war,” says Paola Mar, Venice’s head of tourism told The Independent. In peak season, Venice gets 60,000 visitors a day, with tourists outnumbering the 55,000 residents. The problem here is that visitors who are either staying in an Airbnb apartment or on a day trip are choking the city with their volume but not necessarily contributing economically. Mar says: “The problem is that Venice is perceived as a beach. So they bring packed lunches and squat on steps and canalside and in St Mark’s Square to eat them. They don’t buy anything. And they often arrive in swimsuits, because they’ve stepped from the sun lounger onto a boat which delivers them straight to the Riva degli Schiavoni waterfront.” She calls them “mordi-fuggi” tourists, meaning ‘eat and run’.

Venice has started imposing fines of up to €500 on tourists for behaviour deemed in appropriate, such as swimming in the canals, attaching “love locks” to bridges, picnicking in public places and riding bikes through the city. People are encouraged to keep to the right when walking, not pause on bridges, recycle, and buy from artisans rather than “trashy souvenir shops”.

Even Iceland is suffering from the overtourism phenomenon. Foreign tourism grew by an average of 21.6 percent per year from 2010 to 2015, with 1,289,140 total foreign tourists visiting in 2015 – in a country with a population of just 334,000. Overall, visitor numbers have grown 264 per cent in five years.

Skift report said: “A new tension has emerged in Iceland between those who have hitched their wagon to the ascendant force of tourism and those who have been either left behind, or simply identify tourism as a corrosive pressure on Icelandic culture and tradition.”

A recurring theme in the cities where the problem is at its most acute is the impact of Airbnb and other platforms.

The main cause for locals’ concern in Barcelona – a city where a large number of residents rent their homes rather than own them – is that investors are speculating and buying entire buildings to convert them in to holiday rentals rather than long-term accommodation for locals. It’s much more lucrative, and corners are being cut – around 40 per cent of Barcelona’s tourist apartments are illegal. This is leading to a shortage of housing for those who live and work in the city and driving up rents, which increased by 16.5 per cent in 2016. The city’s relationship with Airbnb is particularly strained after recent events.

The authorities in Venice are working on a crackdown of illegal lets and B&Bs. They’re in talks with Airbnb to discuss what can be done, and are launching a hotline for locals to call if they suspect a property is being sublet illegally.

So, what is the way forward for these destinations, where tensions are already running high? Residents in city break destinations where “too many people do the same thing at the exact same time,” are feeling that “the city no longer belongs to them”, according to Xavier Font, a professor of sustainability marketing at the University of Surrey, and a native of Barcelona. Those who share their apartment blocks with Airbnb hosts have been incredulous, says Font: “‘No longer do we have to share the streets with tourists, we have to share our own buildings?’ We get residents saying, ‘I don’t want my neighbourhood to become like the city centre’,” he told The Guardian.

Venice is also proposing what is calls detourism: “sustainable travel tips and alternative itineraries for exploring an authentic Venice, off the paths beaten by the 28 million visitors who flock there each year”.

Informing prospective visitors of alternatives and ideas for what to do in off-peak seasons, or outside of the city centre can  ease the pressure on busy attractions landmarks. Encouraging a move away from the 48-hour city break to longer stays is also on the agenda. Font says: “If you go to Paris for two days, you’re going to go to the Eiffel Tower. If you go for two weeks, you’re not going to go to the Eiffel tower 14 times.”

Courting repeat visitors is also a move Font favours: “We should be asking how do we get tourists to come back, not how to get them to come for the first time. If they’re coming for the fifth time, it is much easier to integrate their behaviour with ours.”

It is clear strategies need to be put in place in these tourism pinch points, for the benefit of locals and visitors alike, to ensure a sustainable and healthy tourism and hospitality sector. Frequent examples of the demonstrations seen so far, or worse and escalation of the situation, will clearly harm hoteliers’ and apartment operators’ businesses – a new approach from the affected cities is needed urgently.

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