In 2018, 1.4 billion people packed a suitcase, took their passport, and went on a trip abroad. 1.4 billion people. Tourists are the greatest movement on earth. A year ago, I embarked on a project documenting one of the major problems some European cities were facing, over-tourism. This project took me to Barcelona, Venice, Amsterdam, and Dubrovnik — all faced the same core issue, the city has become such a popular tourist hotspot that the lives of the local residents were unbearable. Today, what was a documentary project seems more like science fiction. In days of a pandemic and global lockdown, the number of tourists dropped to zero. It’s fascinating to see how this time, of an unprecedented crisis in tourism, will affect the places that merely a few months ago acted so that tourists won’t come to visit. will they change their ways? In order to tackle this question lets start with some background and go back a year to the crowded streets, packed with tourists, of the Europen hotspots at the forefront of the fight against over-tourism.
Since 1217 the La Boqueria market has been an essential part of the lives of local residents in Barcelona. However, this 800-year-old tradition of locals buying groceries at the market was rapidly coming to an end. The simple task of trying to enter the premises was difficult, it was crowded and noisy. Laura Alvarez, a documentary maker who, I presume, had a great-great-grandfather that did his grocery shopping at the exact place we were now standing, seemed frustrated. “Look at this”, she said holding a small cup filled with assorted cut fruits, “why on earth would a local buy this? and for 3.5 Euros!”. It was clear, hardly any trollies insight but many selfie-sticks, this market isn’t made for locals anymore.
Barcelona, a city of 1.6 million residents, saw 32 million tourists visiting in a year. It wasn’t just the food market that caused problems to locals, it was mainly the real estate market. “You see these two buildings?”, Almog Hizki, a real estate developer, asked me while pointing at the 4 story complex in the center of Barcelona. “10 flats used to be rented for Airbnb, more than half the building”. In the city of Barcelona, around 5,000 Airbnb flats operated with a permit, around 15k-20k operated without. According to estimations, last year, 1.5-2 million visitors spent at least one night in an Airbnb while visiting the city. Homeowners and potential investors couldn’t help themselves, real-estate agencies reported that 75% of the deals made were to foreign investors. The supply of actual living spaces was low, and House prices rose by a staggering 30%. Many locals couldn’t pay their rising rents or were kicked out to be exchanged with lucrative tourists. “If a solution wouldn’t be found soon”, said Daniel Pardo of ABST (Neighbourhood Association for Sustainable Tourism), “us, locals, would have to continue fleeing. Barcelona would become a city of tourists, and for tourists”.
The irony is that Amsterdam was actually a success story. During the financial crisis of 2008, the city started a campaign attracting tourists to come and visit. The Dutch city was rebranded and the tourists were pouring in. The small city of 850k residents saw 19 million visitors (more than the population of the whole country) in a year. The authorities expected the number of tourists to rise to 29 million in 2025 — Amsterdam didn’t want them anymore.
Things have gotten out of hand. “It’s never quiet in the city anymore”, says Peter Tao who has been living in Amsterdam all of his life, “it used to be really quiet on Sundays, and now it’s never Sunday ever again”. One of the main problems was the nature of tourism in Amsterdam. For years it was promoted as a European ‘sin city’, with its Cannabis coffee shops and red-light district. This brought a massive wave of young tourists, not spending much money, not interested in museums and attractions, partying and occasionally misbehaving. The red light district was effected most. 3,000 residents live in the district — yes, it’s an actual neighborhood — and in recent years they saw it transforming into a nonstop party spot. This led to the ”we live here” campaign, in which the locals are trying to educate tourists that the small, narrow streets filled with bright red lights, are also a place where children are trying to sleep.
The city council was aware of the problem, it was very hard not to be. 50 different organized groups were touring the red light district every hour, more than 1,000 groups per week. The women who work there were complaining too, saying that the crowd is hurting business. “It turned into something similar to a zoo”, said Sigal Liberman the project manager in charge of solving the over-tourism problem in the red light district on behalf of the city council. “When you have 80 people standing in front of a window watching the girls like they are a tropical exhibition it’s degrading, it can be uncomfortable for them. Also, no client would walk in when dozens of eyes are glaring at him”. Restrictions were introduced, no more guided tours after 7 pm. It wasn’t enough, people still came, only now they were traveling unsupervised.
During the ’90s, tourism was to Dubrovnik like a distant dream of normality. The Croatian city, torn by savage war, was devastated. Years passed, and the city managed to turn it’s luck around, tourists started coming. Little did the residents know that soon, the whole story of Dubrovnik will turn upside down. In 2011, HBO aired a new and promising show, Game of Thrones. Its producers picked Dubrovnik as the show’s prime location, the capital of the seven kingdoms, King’s landing. Dubrovnik was a popular location before, but King’s landing took tourism there to a whole new level. In one year, The city of 42k residents saw some 4 million visitors entering its old gates and ancient city quarters. As the show grew popular, so did tourism to the city. Dubrovnik had become the most featured city on Instagram. Youtube is filled with clips of people recreating famous scenes at the actual places they were filmed. Centuries of rich history, of culture, of heritage, were replaced by people asking about Cersei and Arya. “When you told your friends back home you're going away on a holiday, where did you tell them you are going to?”, I asked Linda and Nick, tourists from the U.K. “King’s landing, of course”, they answered without hesitation.
Around 2014, Ivan Vuković realized he was sitting on a gold mine. Alongside his regular, ‘history of Dubrovnik’ tour, he decided to add a Game of Thrones tour and show the tourists some of the filming sites. Soon, he would guide 20 groups a week. He couldn’t handle the workload, so he hired more guides, business was great. However, you couldn’t miss the fact that every now and then he was hoping to get a question about the city itself rather than the show. I accompanied him for a few hours, it didn’t happen once.
The effect of tourism on Dubrovnik caused a bit of a paradox. The place had become so popular some of the tourists themselves had begun complaining that it was too crowded and that they could barely get to see all the attractions. The local group “Our Hill” decided to fight back against over-tourism, claiming that the situation has become unbearable. They demanded new laws and restrictions, and the city eventually decided to equipt the 6 gates with sophisticated cameras counting the number of visitors. Above a certain point, no new visitors would be allowed to go in. The small city faced many challenges, notably, traffic — an unknown phenomenon there before the era of nonstop tourist buses. “You could call it King’s landing”, Ivan told me after one of his tours, “but we call it home”.
70 years ago Claudio’s grandfather founded a small gelato shop in the famous Piazza San Marco. When Claudio’s father took over he turned the ice cream place into a restaurant. Today Claudio is in charge of the business but is very concerned that he might be last in the line. “It’s a mistake to think that more tourists mean more money”, he says sitting in his mostly-empty establishment. “Many people who come here only visit for a few hours. They bring their own food, they bring their own drinks. They come to see some attractions and then go back to their cruise ships”. On average 10 large cruise ships docked in Venice every week, on each one, thousands of people. The small city, with its population of 262k, received 26–30 million tourists yearly. Of those, 15 million were ‘day-trippers’, didn’t even spend the night.
Venice is an example of a city in which it’s not only that some tourists don’t really bring in money but actually cost money. With millions of people passing through the fragile surrounding of the ancient city, the infrastructure costs are extremely high. Moreover, you can imagine how much waste millions of people leave behind, someone has to clean it. That’s how a small part of the city, the old city center, had a yearly cleaning budget of 30 million euros. In the case of Venice, it’s not just a problem of littering, it’s not even the crowds or the noise, the city itself is at risk, literally.
118 islands make this beautiful, unique place. The main way of transportation is by its beautiful canals. The problem is that with more tourists comes more usage of the canals, and experts claim that with more usage comes more destruction. Jane da Mosto is the executive director of the organization ‘we live here Venice’, fighting over-tourism and the over-usage of the canals. She is an environmental scientist and her warnings are bleak, “there could be a series of devastating events and Venice will just crumble and fall, buildings would start to disappear and in a few years we would hear people say: ‘Oh yes Venice, my grandmother once told me about that place”.
Over-tourism, Why is it happening?
- Low-cost flight. We can fly across Europe for the price of a pizza. Travel has never been so cheap and accessible.
- Airbnb (and similar services). It’s not just that prices are coming down, it’s mainly a matter of supply. More beds mean more places to sleep in, which means more room for tourists. It’s that simple.
- Social media/Herd effect. We travel by trends, a place could instantly become viral, a must-visit location. If once the trip was at the center of the experience and the picture only a souvenir, today many people travel in order to get that specific picture in that specific location in order to post it on their feed.
- Cruise ships. The fastest-growing travel business in recent years. 28.2 million passengers in 2018 compared to 15 million in 2007. One ship carries thousands of people and takes them to multiple locations in the course of days.
- Demographic changes. People live longer, they are usually healthier and so can travel for more years than ever before. The middle class is growing, and with reduction of costs can afford to go on vacation more regularly. Lastly, the far-east market was booming. Hundreds of millions of people, mainly from China, joined the movement in recent years and became international tourists for the first time.
The Covid-19 crisis Strikes.
It is safe to say that the travel industry is the largest victim of the Covid-19 outbreak. In a matter of weeks, international travel could drop by 80%, this is an unprecedented crisis the travel world had which never seen. Flights almost came to a halt, the projected loss of airlines throughout the world is $84.3 billion, almost three times that of the 2008 financial crisis. The cruise industry came tumbling down. With many cases of outbreaks onboard cruise ships, some were widely reported in international media. Some of the major players in the field are on the brink of collapse, suffering billions of dollars in losses. Airbnb and short-term lettings have dropped, many owners gave up and decided to turn their holiday apartments to long-term rental investments. Even if those industries would somehow manage to survive, tourists themselves won’t be going back on vacations so soon. People are afraid, most prefer to wait it out and postpone any future leisure trips to calmer times. This is a crisis in a magnitude that we have yet to see before, the Implications could last years.
Small businesses relying on tourism are, naturally, at risk. Owners are concerned about their livelihood, they want tourists back and fast. In Amsterdam, for example, many of those working in hospitality criticized the mayor who said tourism should be resumed with extreme caution. “If tourists have to choose between Amsterdam and Berlin — which is sending out messages that it is open, you can visit museums and drink a nice glass of beer again — the tourists will choose Berlin”, said Erik-Jan Ginjaar, a general manager of a hotel chain in the city.
On the other hand, many residents are concerned. On June 13th, hundreds of Venetians gathered for a protest against over-tourism, mainly the docking of large cruise ships. They demanded a complete reform of the issue, and for strict restrictions to be imposed. “We are concerned that now, due to the crisis, the council will be so eager to attract tourists they will completely abandon all the promises that were made to us”, Cherry, a local Venetian tells me over the phone. It’s a complicated subject, in Barcelona, locals can once again walk freely in the narrow streets of the gothic quarter but even those who fought against over-tourism now say that they didn’t want it to go from 100% to zero. “We want to reach a state of balance”, Daniel from ABST said.
Could this be an opportunity?
This period that was forced on us could be the perfect time to restructure and redesign travel, especially in those place which tipped out of balance. Many cities are now promoting in-country tourism, this could help stream a lifeline to some business and create a transition period in which changes could be implemented and examined. This will be a time of trial and error, a test of a city’s capability to hold both its residents and it’s tourists in harmony. Venice, for example, has implemented an electronic system of early registration for people who want to visit the old part of the city. In this way, the council can control and adjust the flow of visitors, and make sure the city wouldn’t get too crowded. This could prove a suitable time to test this system, and other methods, to determine what number of tourists is more than enough. “Last year we saw that we can’t live with the tourists”, Paola Mar the deputy mayor of Venice tells me, “this year we saw that we can’t live without them too. This is the time to figure out the future”.
This period of crisis, of chaos, of emptiness, could prove very significant in the future of tourism. This period could be the birth of a new, responsible, more balanced way of travel. This period could help shape a future in which, in those cities that were experiencing a loss of identity, an unbearable daily life, and a sense of losing control, residents and tourists could finally coexist.