Wed, Aug 09, 2017 - Page 9 News List

Historic cities are buckling under the pressure of tourism

Could targeting repeat visitors be one way to make tourism less of a burden on the people who live in historic cities year-round?

By Elle Hunt  /  The Guardian

Illustration: Mountain people

Not all tourists count getting drunk before noon and desecrating a local monument or two as top priority for a break away, but those who do have come to represent the masses in the cities where they let loose.

Across Europe, where increasing numbers of visitors can overwhelm residents in the summer months, the backlash has started.

“War” — and a new awareness campaign — has been declared in Venice, Italy.

Fines for eating, drinking or sitting on historic fountains have been increased in Rome.

Basilica steps where tourists congregate are being hosed down daily in Florence, Italy.

Last week, in Barcelona, Spain, vigilantes slashed the tires of an open-top bus and spray-painted across its windscreen: “El turisme mata els barris” — Catalan for “tourism kills neighborhoods.”

The message is clear: These cities are buckling under pressure. What to do about it is less obvious.

In tourists’ and residents’ battle for supremacy of shared spaces, local authorities are uncomfortably in the middle. The tourism and travel sector is one of the largest employers in the world, with one new job created for every 30 new visitors to a destination — but at what cost to locals’ quality of life?

Xavier Font, a professor of sustainability marketing at the University of Surrey, said cities tend to ask that question when it is already too late.

“You cannot wait until tourists arrive to give them a code of conduct,” he said.

It would not work, anyway, he added.

Attempts to influence individuals’ behavior are futile, even counterproductive, Font said.

“That attitude of ‘what happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas’ doesn’t just apply to Vegas anymore. When we go on holiday, we’re selfish,” Font said.

As a consultant for national tourism boards, industry associations and businesses, Font asks not how can tourists’ behavior be changed, but how can tourism be changed to manage its impact.

If it is to be made better, more sustainable and less of a burden on cities and the people who live in them year-round, the work should have begun well before visitors bought their tickets.

The World Economic Forum last year recorded 1.2 billion international arrivals — 46 million more than in 2015, and increases are predicted for the coming decade, prompting the UN to designate this year the International Year of Sustainable Tourism for Development.

More people are traveling than ever before, and lower barriers to entry and falling costs means they are doing so for shorter periods.

The rise of “city breaks” — 48-hour bursts of foreign cultures, easier on the pocket and annual leave balance — has increased tourist numbers, but not their geographic spread.

The same attractions have been used to market cities such as Paris, Barcelona and Venice for decades, and visitors use the same infrastructure as residents to reach them.

“Too many people do the same thing at the exact same time,” Font said. “For locals, the city no longer belongs to them.”

Compounding the problem is Airbnb, which, like credit cards and mobile roaming, has made tourists more casual in their approach to international travel, but added to residents’ headaches.

Landlords stand to earn more from renting their properties to tourists than they do to permanent tenants.

Those who share their apartment blocks with Airbnb hosts have been incredulous, Font said.

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