Typically crushed by tourists, summer hotspots aren't sure what happens next

Gondoliers wearing protective face masks wait for tourists in Venice. (Andrea Pattaro/AFP via Getty Images)

A few days before Covid-19 brought Canada to a screeching halt, Eduardo Lafforgue considered a seemingly unanswerable question: How do you decide when your town is attracting more tourists than it can handle?

“I don’t have the magic answer,” he says. “If I did, I would sell the formula to Venice, Barcelona, and some other places that desperately need to know when to stop.”

Lafforgue runs the chamber of commerce of Niagara-on-the-Lake, a picturesque Canadian town a few miles north of Niagara Falls. In the summer months, it is thronged with tourists, who fill its painfully pretty main street, snapping photos of ice-cream cones and hanging baskets. In previous years, the town of 17,500 people has welcomed 3.5 million visitors – almost twice as many per capita as Venice. Lafforgue hesitates to call it overtourism, but the volume of visitors in recent years has been enough to vex local residents, who tell stories of picnickers setting up in their backyard, or taking their lounge furniture off the front porch.

Ordinarily, this time of year would bring dozens of tour buses to the town’s wineries. But more than two months since the start of the pandemic, visitors are staying home. Attractions that would typically bring them in, like the town’s annual Shaw Festival of theatre, have been cancelled or postponed. The nearby border between the US and Canada remains resolutely closed. The question of “how many visitors is too many” has seldom felt less relevant.

It’s the same story in Edinburgh, Venice, New Orleans, and so many other tourism-dependent towns: The problem of having too many visitors was abruptly replaced by the problem of having none at all. With tourism stopped in its tracks, the people and places that rely on it have little idea what happens next.

“Overtourism,” insofar as it has a fixed definition, describes a situation where a place has more visitors than its infrastructure can support. From the outside, the term might conjure up images of the scrum beneath the Mona Lisa or the cruise ships looming in Venice’s harbour. But for people living in places suffering from overtourism, the reality can be more traumatic. Whole apartment blocks in Barcelona’s historic neighbourhoods have been transformed into identikit Airbnb listings. Locals in New Orleans’ French Quarter describe being gaped at like zoo animals.

“I tend to think of it in terms of the health of the destination, which includes locals as a stakeholder,” says Rosie Spinks, the global tourism reporter for travel news company Skift. “When there are so many tourists, locals can no longer live a life that feels authentic to that destination – when you feel like tourism itself is an impediment to living in said place.”

As tourism has disappeared, the effects of building an economy around it are coming into stark relief. Without tourism revenue, jobs throughout the industry are in peril. Service workers in Lisbon, Paris, and umpteen other cities have been furloughed or are out of a job, while destination marketers, who are often funded by lodging- and tourism-related taxes, have found their work mothballed. In Edinburgh, for instance, Market Edinburgh was indefinitely “hibernated” in April, and its staff laid off. Cyprus has taken the unusual step of trying to attract visitors by promising to “take care” of any related costs if they contract coronavirus on their trip.

Usually packed with musicians, artists, locals and tourists, Frechman Street in New Orleans was nearly empty after the festivals and events were cancelled this spring. (Claire Bangser/AFP via Getty Images)

In heavily trafficked New Orleans, which was an early hotspot of Covid-19 in the US, the crisis continues to bite. Kevin Molony is a tourism industry professional and the co-founder of the New Orleans Sustainable Tourism Task Force, an independent group that works with the city to try to change its approach to tourism. He is also a long-term resident of its historic French Quarter.

In the past weeks, he says, three nearby stores have made the decision to close permanently – all “tourist-facing” businesses that he says did little to serve locals. He expects others, including restaurants and hotels, to follow. “Clearly there's going to be a fallout of tourism enterprises,” he says, “and that's a painful, painful thing.”

The amount of relief available to these cities varies significantly. Many governments have seen their funds depleted by the health crisis. But there are a few bright spots, including an €18 billion ($19 billion) bailout package for France’s tourism sector, with €1.3 billion earmarked for direct cash injections into businesses by state banks. In New Orleans, the city’s convention centre donated $1 million to struggling hospitality workers after a large union threatened to cancel its 2021 convention over a lack of support for furloughed workers.

Recovery is beginning, but slowly. A first trickle of mask-wearing tourists has begun to return to some towns, among them Venice and New Orleans. But with businesses still shuttered and social distancing measures in place, the cities are shadows of their former selves – health risks aside, foot traffic is still too low for many businesses to justify a full reopening. Speaking to the Associated Press, Arrigo Cipriani, the owner of famous Venice watering hole Harry’s Bar, said it would remain closed for the foreseeable future: “We can't think about opening with just five or six people" allowed inside at a time.

In some cities, local officials have asked tourists to stay away altogether. Speaking at a digital council meeting in May, Amsterdam’s Green mayor, Femke Halsema, said the city would be “extremely cautious” about welcoming tourists again, citing a “surprising shortage” of public space throughout the cities’ narrow streets and canals. “I know that there are 55,000 hotel beds waiting for guests,” she said. “But in the coming time we need to be extremely cautious about stimulating regional, national and international traffic. If we do this excessively, we run the risk that Amsterdam becomes the fireplace for a second wave [of infection].” In an effort to keep its own visitors at bay, Niagara-on-the-Lake was forced to enact a parking ban in its historic district.

It’s hard to find the silver lining in a global pandemic. But residents in many tourism-heavy cities, including New Orleans, Venice and Barcelona, have suggested that this almighty pause could serve as an opportunity to reassess their city’s relationship with tourism – or, at least, to stem the flow. Since 2000, annual visitor numbers to Barcelona have increased by more than 300%, creating a boom that’s accused of displacing residents, driving up property prices, and turning local stores into temples of tourist tat.

“The previous volume isn't coming back anytime soon – and indeed we would be far better off never returning to those unsustainable pre-pandemic visitor counts,” Molony says.

It’s not about bidding the tourists adieu entirely, of course: “I don't know a single resident who does not enjoy the presence of respectful culture-seeking visitors who are curious about our culture and about us, in the way we live,” he says. “But what we've been experiencing is an inundation of people who arrive in our historic centre, our historic neighbourhood, literally not even knowing that anyone lives here.”

The city’s mayor, Latoya Cantrell, has hinted that the locals could “reclaim” the historic Quarter, which is often maligned as a tourist trap. “We are looking at all possibilities,” she told local news station 4WWL. “Locals kind of taking over, taking back our quarter, taking back our flea market, creating larger scales of pedestrian malls, no cars in the quarter...”

Over 10 years of barely constrained growth, the tourism industry has often paid lip service to tackling overtourism and moving to a more sustainable model. But changes have been few and far between. Cities have historically been reluctant to stem the flow of valuable income, even if it comes at the cost of residents’ happiness or their environment. But with fewer tourists and more expensive flights a virtual certainty, as airlines consolidate, change may now be inevitable – ideally for the better.

More than that, some cities and providers may decide to move away from such an unstable industry altogether. “I think the memory of that – that this isn't a given, that this is fickle – that might press on psyches more than maybe we think it will,” Spinks says. “And maybe that means saying, ‘Okay, we need to be less reliant on this one industry. We need to diversify.’”

Natasha Frost is a freelance journalist based in New York City.


Urgently needed: Timely, more detailed standardized data on US evictions

Graffiti asking for rent forgiveness is seen on a wall on La Brea Ave amid the Covid-19 pandemic in Los Angeles, California. (Valerie Macon/AFP via Getty Images)

Last week the Eviction Lab, a team of eviction and housing policy researchers at Princeton University, released a new dashboard that provides timely, city-level US eviction data for use in monitoring eviction spikes and other trends as Covid restrictions ease. 

In 2018, Eviction Lab released the first national database of evictions in the US. The nationwide data are granular, going down to the level of a few city blocks in some places, but lagged by several years, so their use is more geared toward understanding the scope of the problem across the US, rather than making timely decisions to help city residents now. 

Eviction Lab’s new Eviction Tracking System, however, provides weekly updates on evictions by city and compares them to baseline data from past years. The researchers hope that the timeliness of this new data will allow for quicker action in the event that the US begins to see a wave of evictions once Covid eviction moratoriums are phased out.

But, due to a lack of standardization in eviction filings across the US, the Eviction Tracking System is currently available for only 11 cities, leaving many more places facing a high risk of eviction spikes out of the loop.

Each city included in the Eviction Tracking System shows rolling weekly and monthly eviction filing counts. A percent change is calculated by comparing current eviction filings to baseline eviction filings for a quick look at whether a city might be experiencing an uptick.

Timely US eviction data for a handful of cities is now available from the Eviction Lab. (Courtesy Eviction Lab)

The tracking system also provides a more detailed report on each city’s Covid eviction moratorium efforts and more granular geographic and demographic information on the city’s evictions.

Click to the above image to see a city-level eviction map, in this case for Pittsburgh. (Courtesy Eviction Lab)

As part of their Covid Resource, the Eviction Lab together with Columbia Law School professor Emily Benfer also compiled a scorecard for each US state that ranks Covid-related tenant protection measures. A total of 15 of the 50 US states plus Washington DC received a score of zero because those states provided little if any protections.

CityMetric talked with Peter Hepburn, an assistant professor at Rutgers who just finished a two-year postdoc at the Eviction Lab, and Jeff Reichman, principal at the data science research firm January Advisors, about the struggles involved in collecting and analysing eviction data across the US.

Perhaps the most notable hurdle both researchers addressed is that there’s no standardized reporting of evictions across jurisdictions. Most evictions are reported to county-level governments, however what “reporting” means differs among and even within each county. 

In Texas, evictions go through the Justice of the Peace Courts. In Virginia they’re processed by General District Courts. Judges in Milwaukee are sealing more eviction case documents that come through their courtroom. In Austin, Pittsburgh and Richmond, eviction addresses aren’t available online but ZIP codes are. In Denver you have to pay about $7 to access a single eviction filing. In Alabama*, it’s $10 per eviction filing. 

Once the filings are acquired, the next barrier is normalizing them. While some jurisdictions share reporting systems, many have different fields and formats. Some are digital, but many are images of text or handwritten documents that require optical character recognition programs and natural language processors in order to translate them into data. That, or the filings would have to be processed by hand. 

“There's not enough interns in the world to do that work,” says Hepburn.

Aggregating data from all of these sources and normalizing them requires knowledge of the nuances in each jurisdiction. “It would be nice if, for every region, we were looking for the exact same things,” says Reichman. “Instead, depending on the vendor that they use, and depending on how the data is made available, it's a puzzle for each one.”

In December of 2019, US Senators Michael Bennet of Colorado and Rob Portman of Ohio introduced a bill that would set up state and local grants aimed at reducing low-income evictions. Included in the bill is a measure to enhance data collection. Hepburn is hopeful that the bill could one day mean an easier job for those trying to analyse eviction data.

That said, Hepburn and Reichman caution against the public release of granular eviction data. 

“In a lot of cases, what this gets used for is for tenant screening services,” says Hepburn. “There are companies that go and collect these data and make them available to landlords to try to check and see if their potential tenants have been previously evicted, or even just filed against for eviction, without any sort of judgement.”

According to research by Eviction Lab principal Matthew Desmond and Tracey Shollenberger, who is now vice president of science at Harvard’s Center for Policing Equity, residents who have been evicted or even just filed against for eviction often have a much harder time finding equal-quality housing in the future. That coupled with evidence that evictions affect minority populations at disproportionate rates can lead to widening racial and economic gaps in neighborhoods.

While opening up raw data on evictions to the public would not be the best option, making timely, granular data available to researchers and government officials can improve the system’s ability to respond to potential eviction crises.

Data on current and historical evictions can help city officials spot trends in who is getting evicted and who is doing the evicting. It can help inform new housing policy and reform old housing policies that may put more vulnerable citizens at undue risk.

Hepburn says that the Eviction Lab is currently working, in part with the ACLU, on research that shows the extent to which Black renters are disproportionately affected by the eviction crisis.

More broadly, says Hepburn, better data can help provide some oversight for a system which is largely unregulated.

“It's the Wild West, right? There's no right to representation. Defendants have no right to counsel. They're on their own here,” says Hepburn. “I mean, this is people losing their homes, and they're being processed in bulk very quickly by the system that has very little oversight, and that we know very little about.”

A 2018 report by the Philadelphia Mayor’s Taskforce on Eviction Prevention and Response found that of Philadelphia’s 22,500 eviction cases in 2016, tenants had legal representation in only 9% of them.

Included in Hepburn’s eviction data wishlist is an additional ask, something that is rarely included in any of the filings that the Eviction Lab and January Advisors have been poring over for years. He wants to know the relationship between money owed and monthly rent.

“At the individual level, if you were found to owe $1,500, was that on an apartment that's $1,500 a month? Or was it an apartment that's $500 a month? Because that makes a big difference in the story you're telling about the nature of the crisis, right? If you're letting somebody get three months behind that's different than evicting them immediately once they fall behind,” Hepburn says.

Now that the Eviction Tracking System has been out for a week, Hepburn says one of the next steps is to start reaching out to state and local governments to see if they can garner interest in the project. While he’s not ready to name any names just yet, he says that they’re already involved in talks with some interested parties.

*Correction: This story initially misidentified a jurisdiction that charges $10 to access an eviction filing. It is the state of Alabama, not the city of Atlanta. Also, at the time of publication, Peter Hepburn was an assistant professor at Rutgers, not an associate professor.

Alexandra Kanik is a data reporter at CityMetric.