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.

 
 
 
 

“Stop worrying about hairdressers”: The UK government has misdiagnosed its productivity problem

We’re going as fast as we can, here. Image: Getty.

Gonna level with you here, I have mixed feelings about this one. On the one hand, I’m a huge fan of schadenfreude, so learning that it the government has messed up in a previously unsuspected way gives me this sort of warm glow inside. On the other hand, the way it’s been screwing up is probably making the country poorer, and exacerbating the north south divide. So, mixed reviews really.

Here’s the story. This week the Centre for Cities (CfC) published a major report on Britain’s productivity problem. For the last 200 years, ever since the industrial revolution, this country has got steadily richer. Since the financial crash, though, that seems to have stopped.

The standard narrative on this has it that the problem lies in the ‘long tail’ of unproductive businesses – that is, those that produce less value per hour. Get those guys humming, the thinking goes, and the productivity problem is sorted.

But the CfC’s new report says that this is exactly wrong. The wrong tail: Why Britain’s ‘long tail’ is not the cause of its productivity problems (excellent pun, there) delves into the data on productivity in different types of businesses and different cities, to demonstrate two big points.

The first is that the long tail is the wrong place to look for productivity gains. Many low productivity businesses are low productivity for a reason:

The ability of manufacturing to automate certain processes, or the development of ever more sophisticated computer software in information and communications have greatly increased the output that a worker produces in these industries. But while a fitness instructor may use a smartphone today in place of a ghetto blaster in 1990, he or she can still only instruct one class at a time. And a waiter or waitress can only serve so many tables. Of course, improvements such as the introduction of handheld electronic devices allow orders to be sent to the kitchen more efficiently, will bring benefits, but this improvements won’t radically increase the output of the waiter.

I’d add to that: there is only so fast that people want to eat. There’s a physical limit on the number of diners any restaurant can actually feed.

At any rate, the result of this is that it’s stupid to expect local service businesses to make step changes in productivity. If we actually want to improve productivity we should focus on those which are exporting services to a bigger market.  There are fewer of these, but the potential gains are much bigger. Here’s a chart:

The y-axis reflects number of businesses at different productivities, shown on the x-axis. So bigger numbers on the left are bad; bigger numbers on the right are good. 

The question of which exporting businesses are struggling to expand productivity is what leads to the report’s second insight:

Specifically it is the underperformance of exporting businesses in cities outside of the Greater South East that causes not only divergences across the country in wages and standards of living, but also hampers national productivity. These cities in particular should be of greatest concern to policy makers attempting to improve UK productivity overall.

In other words, it turned out, again, to the north-south divide that did it. I’m shocked. Are you shocked? This is my shocked face.

The best way to demonstrate this shocking insight is with some more graphs. This first one shows the distribution of productivity in local services business in four different types of place: cities in the south east (GSE) in light green, cities in the rest of the country (RoGB) in dark green, non-urban areas in the south east in purple, non-urban areas everywhere else in turquoise.

The four lines are fairly consistent. The light green, representing south eastern cities has a lower peak on the left, meaning slightly fewer low productivity businesses, but is slightly higher on the right, meaning slightly more high productivity businesses. In other words, local services businesses in the south eastern cities are more productive than those elsewhere – but the gap is pretty narrow. 

Now check out the same graph for exporting businesses:

The differences are much more pronounced. Areas outside those south eastern cities have many more lower productivity businesses (the peaks on the left) and significantly fewer high productivity ones (the lower numbers on the right).

In fact, outside the south east, cities are actually less productive than non-urban areas. This is really not what you’d expect to see, and no a good sign for the health of the economy:

The report also uses a few specific examples to illustrate this point. Compare Reading, one of Britain’s richest medium sized cities, with Hull, one of its poorest:

Or, looking to bigger cities, here’s Bristol and Sheffield:

In both cases, the poorer northern cities are clearly lacking in high-value exporting businesses. This is a problem because these don’t just provide well-paying jobs now: they’re also the ones that have the potential to make productivity gains that can lead to even better jobs. The report concludes:

This is a major cause for concern for the national economy – the underperformance of these cities goes a long way to explain both why the rest of Britain lags behind the Greater South East and why it performs poorly on a

European level. To illustrate the impact, if all cities were as productive as those in the Greater South East, the British economy would be 15 per cent more productive and £225bn larger. This is equivalent to Britain being home to four extra city economies the size of Birmingham.

In other words, the lesson here is: stop worrying about the productivity of hairdressers. Start worrying about the productivity of Hull.


You can read the Centre for Cities’ full report here.

Jonn Elledge is the editor of CityMetric. He is on Twitter as @jonnelledge and on Facebook as JonnElledgeWrites

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