This is why Amsterdam, Barcelona and Venice are all trying to clamp down on tourists

More tourists ruining Barcelona by enjoying themselves. Image: Getty.

“Get out, get out, get the hell out” sounds like an unlikely candidate for the key travel trend of A/W 2015. But popular European tourist destinations seem to be adopting this mantra, by rolling out anti-tourist initiatives, nonetheless.

Amsterdam, Barcelona and Venice are not the only cities talking figuratively – or in the case of the latter, literally – about shutting their gates. But they are some of the more prominent, and their various anti-tourism initiatives run the gauntlet from covert legislation to all-out-war. By examining their tactics, we can see both how anti-tourism sentiment builds, and how effective countermeasures really are.

The arguments given for limiting tourism tend to be fairly consistent. Residents in popular tourist destinations complain of higher rents, increases in crime rates and littering, and fewer resources aimed at local residents (why put a library there when you could have a shop devoted to selling Union Jack embossed dildos?). They also point to the greater burden on public transport, price hikes and the scattering of communities.

The various responses pursued by cities, however, suggest that the scale and origin of anti-tourist sentiment has a marked impact on what sort of countermeasures are adopted. While Barcelona and Venice have hit the headlines in recent years with big, civic protests and attention grabbing initiatives, Amsterdam has followed a comparatively covert, legislative route.

This is partly because the impact of tourism on Amsterdam’s infrastructure is not as advanced as it is in Barcelona or Venice; but it also reflects where the city’s anti-tourism sentiment is coming from in the first place.

Amsterdam

In June 2015 Amsterdam city council called a halt to all hotel development in the city centre. This may sound like a fairly minor move: Amsterdam already has a multitude of hotels and some of the most relaxed AirBnB laws in Europe.

But this is a city that has built its wealth on hospitality, and that filled 90 per cent of its room capacity in August 2015. The demand for more tourist accommodation is there – but by halting hotel development, Amsterdam city council has discreetly put a check on increased footfall.

A Christmas market in Amsterdam last year. Image: Getty.

Unease over Amsterdam’s tourism has been bubbling away for a while now, but the amount of attention it receives in the media is perhaps out of proportion to the number of people who actually care. When a politician or the director of the Rijksmuseum complain about tourism, they garner column inches – but their complaints are not representative of public opinion.

The majority of Amsterdam’s inhabitants find tourists irritating, but not enough for a political campaign to build around the issue. This is in direct contrast to Barcelona where anti-tourist sentiment is more entrenched and, therefore, more political.


Barcelona

Barcelona’s anti-tourist sentiment stretches back to 2007 when little-known politician Ada Colau disrupted a political meeting to protest, among other things, the impact tourists were having on the city’s housing market. Since then activists have marked tourist paths and “normal” Bacelonean paths; people have taken to the streets to protest the impact of AirBnB on the city’s strained resources; and Colau was elected mayor on an anti-tourist platform in June 2015.

While Amsterdam has quietly pushed through its anti-tourism legislation, Colau’s plan to adopt a tourist cap have made headlines around the world – and it’s not even in place yet. This reflects the fact that, in Barcelona anti-tourism initiatives are a vote winner; but for Dutch politicians they are a side-issue.

But setting aside the differing opinion among voters, there is one thing everyone can agree on: no one, Bacelonan or Amsterdammer, wants their city to turn into another Venice.

Venice

Venice has been feeling the impact of increased tourism longer than most European tourist hotspots: as a result, it’s lost half its fixed population in the last 30 years. Hotel stays have also dropped by two thirds, with most tourists coming via gigantic cruise ships and spending only the day in the city.

This has led to accusations that Venice is being turned into a tourist theme park. The majority of the city’s economy is devoted to tourism – but, unlike in Barcelona and Amsterdam, the traditional hospitality industries are dying.

Tourist gondolas on the Grand Canal. Image: Getty.

In 2008 city residents held a funeral for Venice, and residents are divided over whether the city should install gates and charge tourists for entry. Some argue that the real solution is to lower city rates so that more ordinary families can live there – but without a viable alternative industry to tourism it’s not clear how these families would survive.

All of this makes it sound like excess tourists are a city’s death knell, and politicians across Europe should be wildly scrambling to stop their city from “doing a Venice”. But it’s not all doom and gloom. While cities like Amsterdam and Barcelona can use Venice as an example of what happens when tourism goes unchecked, they can also learn from the city.


In October Farah Makki reported for CityMetric on how smart mobility planning could counter the Disneyfication of Venice. Makki details the efforts of students and professionals from the Urbego and IUAV University in finding ways to redistribute footfall (saving Venice’s crumbling streets) and tourist income. Rather than putting a cap on tourists, the solution could be to use smart technology to change how tourists use Venice.

It’s not clear yet how successful their efforts will be. But it’s likely that other cities struggling with a dramatic increase in tourism will be able to learn a lot by watching their Venetian counterparts.

 
 
 
 

Leeds is still haunted by its pledge to be the “Motorway City of the Seventies”

Oh, Leeds. Image: mtaylor848/Wikimedia Commons.

As the local tourist board will no doubt tell you, Leeds has much to be proud of: grandiose industrial architecture in the form of faux-Egyptian temples and Italian bell-towers; an enduring cultural legacy as the birthplace of Goth, and… motorways. But stand above the A58(M) – the first “urban motorway”  in the country – and you might struggle to pinpoint its tourist appeal.

Back in the 1970s, though, the city council was sufficiently gripped by the majesty of the motorways to make them a part of its branding. Letters sent from Leeds were stamped with a postmark proudly proclaiming the city's modernity: “Leeds, Motorway City of the Seventies”.

Image: public domain.

During the 1960s, post-war optimism and an appetite for grand civic projects saw the rapid construction of motorways across England. The construction of the M1 began in 1959; it reached Leeds, its final destination, in 1968. By the early 1970s the M62 was sweeping across Pennines, and the M621 loop was constructed to link it to Leeds city centre.

Not content with being the meeting point of two major motorways, Leeds was also the first UK city to construct a motorway through the city centre: the inner ring road, which incorporates the short motorway stretches of the A58(M) and the A64(M). As the council put it in 1971, “Leeds is surging forward into the Seventies”.

The driving force behind Leeds' love of motorways was a mix of civic pride and utopian city planning. Like many industrial cities in the North and Midlands, Leeds experienced a decline in traditional manufacturing during the 1960s. Its position at the centre of two major motorways seemed to offer a brighter future as a dynamic city open for trade, with the infrastructure to match. In response to the expansion of the roads, 1970s council planners also constructed an elevated pedestrian “skywalk” in an attempt to free up space for cars at ground level. Photos of Leeds from that time show a thin, white walkway running through blocky office buildings – perhaps not quite as extensive as the futuristic urban landscape originally envisaged by planners, but certainly a visual break with the past.

Fast forward to 2019 and Leeds’ efforts to become a “Motorway City” seems like a kitsch curiosity from a decade that was not always known for sustainable planning decisions. Leeds’s historic deference to the car has serious consequences in the present: in February 2019, Neville Street – a busy tunnel that cuts under Leeds station – was found to contain the highest levels of NO2 outside London.

City centre planners did at least have the foresight to sink stretches of the inner motorways below street level, leaving pedestrian routes largely undisturbed. Just outside the centre, though, the roads can be more disruptive. Sheepscar Interchange is a bewildering tangle of arterial roads, Armley Gyratory strikes fear into the hearts of learner drivers, and the M621 carves unsympathetically through inner-city areas of South Leeds with pedestrian access restricted to narrow bridges that heighten the sense of a fragmented landscape.

 

Leeds inner ring road in its cutting. Image: author provided.

 

The greatest problem for Yorkshire's “Motorway City” in 2019, however, is not the occasional intimidating junction, but the complete lack of an alternative to car travel. The dire state of public transport in Leeds has already been raised on these pages. In the early 20th century Leeds had one of the most extensive tram networks in the country. The last lines closed in 1959, the same year construction began on the A58m.


The short-sightedness of this decision was already recognised in the 1970s, as traffic began to build. Yet plans for a Leeds Supertram were rejected by successive Conservative and Labour governments unwilling to front the cost, even though smaller cities such as Newcastle and Sheffield were granted funding for light transport systems. Today, Leeds is the largest city in the EU without a mass transit system. As well as creating congestion, the lack of viable public transport options prevents connectivity: the city's bus network is reasonable, but weaker from East to West than North to South. As a non-driver, I've turned down jobs a short drive away that would be a logistical impossibility without a car.

Leeds' early enthusiasm for the motorway was perhaps premature, but there are things we can learn from the 1970s. Whatever else can be said about it, Leeds' city transport strategy was certainly bold – a quality in short supply today, after proposals for the supertram were watered down to a trolleybus system before being scrapped altogether in 2016. Leeds' rapid transformation in the 1960s and 70s, its grandiose visions of skywalks and dual carriageways, were driven by strong local political will. Today, the long-term transport strategy documents on Leeds City Council's website say more about HS2 than the need for a mass transit system within Leeds itself, and the council has been accused of giving up the fight for light rail and trams.

Whilst central government's refusal to grant funds is the greatest obstacle to Leeds' development, the local authority needs to be far more vocal in demanding the transport system the city deserves. Leeds' desire to be the Motorway City of the Seventies might look ludicrous today, but the political drive and utopian optimism that underpinned it does not.