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.

 
 
 
 

Businesses need less office and retail space than ever. So what does this mean for cities?

Boarded up shops in Quebec City. Image: Getty.

As policymakers develop scenarios for Brexit, researchers speculate about its impact on knowledge-intensive business services. There is some suggestion that higher performing cities and regions will face significant structural changes.

Financial services in particular are expected to face up to £38bn in losses, putting over 65,000 jobs at risk. London is likely to see the back of large finance firms – or at least, sizable components of them – as they seek alternatives for their office functions. Indeed, Goldman Sachs has informed its employees of impending relocation, JP Morgan has purchased office space in Dublin’s docklands, and banks are considering geographical dispersion rather concentration at a specific location.

Depending on the type of business, some high-order service firms will behave differently. After all, depreciation of sterling against the euro can be an opportunity for firms seeking to take advantage of London’s relative affordability and its highly qualified labour. Still, it is difficult to predict how knowledge-intensive sectors will behave in aggregate.

Strategies other than relocation are feasible. Faced with economic uncertainty, knowledge-intensive businesses in the UK may accelerate the current trend of reducing office space, of encouraging employees to work from a variety of locations, and of employing them on short-term contracts or project-based work. Although this type of work arrangement has been steadily rising, it is only now beginning to affect the core workforce.

In Canada – also facing uncertainty as NAFTA is up-ended – companies are digitising work processes and virtualising workspace. The benefits are threefold: shifting to flexible workspaces can reduce real-estate costs; be attractive to millennial workers who balk at sitting in an office all day; and reduces tension between contractual and permanent staff, since the distinction cannot be read off their location in an office. While in Canada these shifts are usually portrayed as positive, a mark of keeping up with the times, the same changes can also reflect a grimmer reality.  

These changes have been made possible by the rise in mobile communication technologies. Whereas physical presence in an office has historically been key to communication, coordination and team monitoring, these ends can now be achieved without real-estate. Of course, offices – now places to meet rather than places to perform the substance of consulting, writing and analysing – remain necessary. But they can be down-sized, with workers performing many tasks at home, in cafés, in co-working spaces or on the move. This shifts the cost of workspace from employer to employee, without affecting the capacity to oversee, access information, communicate and coordinate.

What does this mean for UK cities? The extent to which such structural shifts could be beneficial or detrimental is dependent upon the ability of local governments to manage the situation.


This entails understanding the changes companies are making and thinking through their consequences: it is still assumed, by planners and in many urban bylaws and regulations, that buildings have specific uses, that economic activity occurs in specific neighbourhoods and clusters, and that this can be understood and regulated. But as increasing numbers of workers perform their economic activities across the city and along its transport networks, new concepts are needed to understand how the economy permeates cities, how ubiquitous economic activity can be coordinated with other city functions, such as housing, public space, transport, entertainment, and culture; and, crucially, how it can translate into revenue for local governments, who by-and-large rely on property taxes.

It’s worth noting that changes in the role of real-estate are also endemic in the retail sector, as shopping shifts on-line, and as many physical stores downsize or close. While top flight office and retail space may remain attractive as a symbolic façade, the ensuing surplus of Class B (older, less well located) facilities may kill off town-centres.

On the other hand, it could provide new settings within which artists and creators, evicted from their decaying nineteenth century industrial spaces (now transformed into expensive lofts), can engage in their imaginative and innovative pursuits. Other types of creative and knowledge work can also be encouraged to use this space collectively to counter isolation and precarity as they move from project to project.

Planners and policymakers should take stock of these changes – not merely reacting to them as they arise, but rethinking the assumptions that govern how they believe economic activity interacts with, and shapes, cities. Brexit and other fomenters of economic uncertainty exacerbate these trends, which reduce fixed costs for employers, but which also shift costs and uncertainty on to employees and cities.

But those who manage and study cities need to think through what these changes will mean for urban spaces. As the display, coordination and supervision functions enabled by real-estate – and, by extension, by city neighbourhoods – Increasingly transfer on-line, it’s worth asking: what roles do fixed locations now play in the knowledge economy?

Filipa Pajević is a PhD student at the School of Urban Planning, McGill University, researching the spatial underpinnings of mobile knowledge. She tweets as @filipouris. Richard Shearmur is currently director of the School, and has published extensively on the geography of innovation and on location in the urban economy.