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Residents in tourism hotspots have had enough. So what’s the answer?

Tourism brings money and jobs to cities — but can also damage culture and heritage and pose inconveniences to the lives of locals. Here are some solutions

By Elle Hunt  /  The Guardian

A tourist in August last year takes a picture of the city’s panorama as he stands next to a wall with a graffiti reading “Tourist: your luxury trip — my daily misery” at Park Guell in Barcelona.

Photo: AFP

How do you solve a problem like tourism? It employs hundreds of millions of people, buoys entire industries — but can tear apart the very cities that benefit from it, alienating residents and causing irreversible damage to their culture and heritage.

Protests across Europe have spurred talk of “responsible tourism” and forcing the sector to factor in sustainability, but the problem is already at such a scale that doing anything about it seems akin to turning around a cruise liner.

What’s the way out of this mess?


The most obvious solution to the problem of too many tourists is to spread them over a larger area, says Alex Dichter, a senior partner of McKinsey & Company consultancy, which in December produced a report on managing overcrowded tourist destinations.

Overcrowding is such a localized issue that even in a city apparently at breaking point, such as Barcelona, Dichter is “sure there are neighborhoods that are overwhelmed and there are others that are in need of quite a bit more”.

Many cities compound the problem by promoting only a small number of sites — often the obvious ones. Tourists can be dispersed by boosting less popular attractions and developing new ones.

Tell tourists: come back later ... and come back encouraging visitors outside of peak times of day, season and year similarly lessens their impact. If marketing alone doesn’t work, arrival limits and pricing adjustments might do the job, says Dichter.

Repeat visitors know the city better and venture beyond the must-see attractions. Laura Aalto, chief executive of Helsinki Marketing, says establishing a sense of “localhood” is key to a positive and often long-term relationship between a city and its visitors.

“Nobody wants to be a tourist, everybody wants to be part-time locals,” she says. “Our job is to create the kind of circumstances, conditions and platforms for visitors who come to Helsinki to meet with the locals and not go to the most obvious attractions.”


... which is to say: no hen nights and stag dos. In Barcelona it is known as turismo de Borrachera — having a drunken party in a strange city in order to get away with behavior that would be considered unacceptable at home. Cities sell themselves on the strength of their cheap beer or nightlife at their peril. Amsterdam, for instance, has invested a lot in marketing itself as an arts and culture destination to shake off its reputation as a city-wide red-light district.

Aalto says profiling has revealed that visitors who come to Helsinki to engage with a specific interest (“whether that be design, architecture, education or heavy metal music”) are those who will bring the most reward.

“Those are the ones who will be our ambassadors for life, who are creating a relationship with the city and maybe come more and more often — they are the ones who are friends of Helsinki,” Aalto says.

Win the marketing marathon, not the sprint growth is too often the measure of a successful tourism industry, says Xavier Font, a professor of sustainability marketing at the University of Surrey.

“There is a sense unless we grow, we are not doing very well — but it’s causing huge problems,” Font says.

He suggests marketing smarter, not necessarily more — such as packages to attract visitors for five days, not just a weekend — and targeted upselling, to draw, for example, visitors to the Sagrada Familia to a crypt just outside Barcelona’s city center.

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