Mass tourism is ruining historic cities. Only government can stop it

Four ways to keep overtourism from ravaging environments and pushing locals out

Barcelona, swamped by the thousands of visitors who pour out of cruise ships daily, erupts into angry protests with growing frequency. In Venice, where half the population has been driven out by rising housing costs, anti-tourism graffiti defiles decades-old buildings. Other Italian cities, like Florence, have passed draconian laws to keep unruly travellers in line: the Tuscan capital will fine anyone caught eating outdoors.

From European hotspots to India and Indonesia, mass tourism is pricing citizens out of their homes, overcrowding capitals, creating water crises and degrading once-pristine beaches, rainforests and national parks. These problems are often the result of governments prioritising tourists over citizens.

And it shows no sign of abating: tourism has been on the rise for the past 50 years, with international arrivals increasing from 25 million in the 1950s to 1.2 billion in 2016. Its spread is due to a number of factors: globalisation; the rise of low-cost airlines and cruise ships; the availability of home rentals via platforms like Airbnb; the growing popularity of city breaks.

The tourism industry is not going to regulate itself — it’s up to governments, which, above all, tend to associate sightseers with growth, job creation, development and tax revenue. But, as some are realising, regulation is the only sustainable way forward if these countries are to retain their culture and preserve their ecosystems. Here are some of the more creative ways governments are curbing overtourism.

Use data to nudge tourists away from hotspots

Amsterdam gets 14million visitors a year, thanks in large part to its successful “I Amsterdam” branding campaign. It’s proven so popular that tourists are overwhelming the city — so its government is using data to nudge them away from popular attractions at peak times.

It uses a chip in the Amsterdam City Card, which gives tourists access to museums, boat cruises and public transit for a fee, to track where tourists are going and when. An associated app called Discover the City features live feeds of popular attractions, like the Van Gogh Museum and Red Light District, which allows tourists to monitor how crowded they are. Notifications warn people when attractions are busier than usual and suggest other parts of the city to visit.

Get tough with Airbnb

In Barcelona, Airbnb’s rapid growth has squeezed locals out of the housing market, as the number of affordable apartments available for rent shrinks. The city’s mayor, Ada Colau, was elected in 2015 under the promise of reigning in the tourism industry. Her administration has since introduced a new tourist tax, banned the construction of hotels in the city centre, ensured vacation rentals pay the highest property tax rate, capped visitor numbers — and threatened to sue Airbnb.

In what is likely the most effective Airbnb crackdown to date, Barcelona told the site to remove 2,577 listings that were operating without a city-approved license, or it would take the home-sharing company to court.

Now, Barcelona can see where rentals are located and who their hosts are. This allows it to track hosts and ensure they have permission to rent, which makes it easier for officials to find out who’s breaking the law and fine them. Barcelona’s success shows that pressure from government can force Airbnb to play by its rules.

Rebrand less popular areas

Cities are driving tourists away from their most inundated attractions and neighbourhoods by creatively marketing areas off the beaten track. Amsterdam, for example, rebranded the Zandvoort beach — which is 18 miles out of the city — as Amsterdam Beach, to signal to tourists that it’s easily reachable. Free transit to the beach is included with the purchase of the Amsterdam City Card.

London used the same approach to steer tourists away from ever-popular Buckingham Palace and Oxford Street, and into regions like Westminster. New York used a campaign called Neighbourhood x Neighbourhood to market the outer boroughs to visitors, with the goal of supporting local businesses and preventing overcrowding.

Try a low-volume tourism model

Bhutan, a Buddhist kingdom east of the Himalayas, is known for its picturesque mountain ranges and pristine monasteries. It also famously instituted a costly tourist levy: visitors have to spend $250 per day per person, which can go to transportation, accommodation, food and guide services.

Every sightseer must be accompanied by a guide, who briefs them on the country’s history and culture. The guide also ensures all garbage is collected and that tourists don’t damage environmentally vulnerable areas.

These guidelines, though stringent, has helped preserve the country’s cultural identity and keeps it from being overrun by mass tourism. The model has been replicated in Palau and Botswana.

The Galapagos Islands, known for its diverse plant and animal species, takes a similar approach.

All visitors must have a guide — no tourist is allowed to explore the archipelago alone. Its National Park Authority sets limits on the tourists allowed to visit a site at one time, and it can stop tourists from entering a site if officials think it’s getting damaged. Entrance fees go to conservation projects. — Jennifer Guay

(Picture credit: Flickr/Richardjo53)

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