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.

 
 
 
 

To boost the high street, cities should invest in offices

Offices in Northampton. Image: Getty.

Access to cheap borrowing has encouraged local authorities to proactively invest in commercial property. These assets can be a valuable tool for cities looking to improve the built environment they offer businesses and residents.

Councils are estimated to have spent £3.8bn on property between 2013 and 2017, funded through the government’s Public Works Loan Board (PWLB) at very low interest rates. Offices accounted for half of this investment, and roughly a third (£1.2bn) has been spent on retail properties. And local authorities were the biggest investor group for UK shopping centres in the first quarter of 2018.

Why are cities investing? There are two major motivations.

First, at a time when cuts are squeezing council revenue budgets, property investments can provide a long-term revenue stream to keep quality public services up and running. Second, ownership of buildings in areas marked for redevelopment allows councils to assemble land more easily and gives them more influence over the changes taking place, allowing them to make sure the space evolves to meet their objectives.

But how exactly can cities turn property ownership into successful place-making? How should they adapt the buildings they invest in to improve the performance of the economies?

Cities need workers

When developing the city’s property offer, the aim should be to get jobs back into the city centre while reducing the dominance of retail space. For councils who have invested in existing retail space and shopping centres, in particular, the temptation may be to try and retain their existing use, with new retail strategies designed to reduce vacancies.

But as the Centre for Cities’ recent Building Blocks report illustrates, the evidence points to this being a dead-end. Instead, cities may need to convert the properties they own so they house a more diverse group of businesses.

Many city centres already have a lot of retail – and this has not offered significant economic benefit. Almost half (43 per cent) of city centre space in the weakest city economies is taken up by shops, while retail only accounts for 18 per cent of space in strong city centre economies. And many of these shops lie empty: in weaker city centres vacancy rates of high-street services (retail, food and leisure) are on average 16 per cent, compared with 9 per cent in stronger city economies. In Newport, nearly a quarter of these premises are empty, as the map below shows.

The big issue in these city centres is the lack of office jobs – which are an important contributor to footfall for retailers. This means that, in order to improve the fortunes of the high street, policy will need to tackle the barriers that deter those businesses from moving to their city centres.

One of these barriers is the quality of office space. In a number of struggling city centres, the quality of office space on offer is poor. But the low returns available for private investors mean that some form of public sector involvement will be required.


Ownership of buildings gives cities the opportunity to reshape the type of commercial space on offer. Some of this will involve improving the existing office stock available, some will involve converting retail to office, and some of will require demolishing part of the space without replacing it, in the short term at least. Without ownership of the land and buildings on it, this task becomes very difficult to do but will be a fundamental part of turning the fortunes of a city centre around.

Cheap borrowing has provided a way not only for local authorities to generate an income stream through property investment. but also opens up the opportunity to have greater control over the development of their city centres. For those choosing to invest, the focus must be on using ownership to make the city centre a more attractive place for all businesses to invest, rather than hoping to revive retail alone.

Rebecca McDonald is an analyst at the Centre for Cities, on whose blog this article first appeared.