“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.
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’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 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.