‘Overtourism’ Worries Europe. How Much Did Technology Help Get Us There?

A rising chorus blames Airbnb, Uber and other internet-enabled travel conveniences for a boom that threatens a sustainable balance

Illustration: Glenn Harvey

By Farhad Manjoo

Over the summer, my wife and I traveled with our two young kids on a two-week vacation through Europe.

It was not as highfalutin as it sounds. In London, our Airbnb had ample skylights — which rendered the place all but uninhabitable during Europe’s heat wave. In Paris, our charming home-share had a cavernous hole in the ceiling of the entryway, revealing load-bearing beams that appeared to have been rotting since Napoleon’s reign. And in Amsterdam, our Airbnb advertised a kids’ bedroom stocked with toys — but failed to mention the mosquitoes and mice.

I am not complaining. If travel mishaps are the stuff of memory, my vacation was unforgettable. And without home-sharing services like Airbnb, review sites like TripAdvisor and conveniences like Uber, OpenTable and Expedia, the trip would have been far more expensive, less accessible and, in a strange way, less authentic.

But my tech-abetted trip was illuminating, too, because it provided a firsthand look into a vexing problem that has gripped much of Europe lately — the worry of “overtourism,” and the rising chorus that blames technologies like Airbnb, Uber and other internet-enabled travel conveniences for the menace.

Every summer, the most popular European destinations get stuffed to the gills with tourists, who outnumber locals by many multiples, turning hot spots into sweaty, selfie-stick-clogged, “Disneyfied” towns. They offer a taste of a growing global threat: Across the world, thanks in part to rising affluence, travel is becoming a more widely shared pastime. International trips were up 6 percent in the first half of the year, surpassing experts’ forecasts, according to the United Nations’ World Tourism Organization.

This growth might once have been considered unambiguously good news. But the world’s most popular destinations cannot expand to accommodate an infinite flood of visitors. Advocates of curbing tourism say too many visitors are altering the character of historic cities and making travel terrible, too.

“It’s a level of tourism which is degrading the enjoyment that residents have, but it’s also degrading the tourist experience, because the tourist who is endlessly queuing behind backpacks of hundreds of other tourists is not discovering the real or the authentic place,” said Justin Francis, chief executive of Responsible Travel, a company that arranges “sustainable” travel for customers.

What’s to blame? In addition to broad prosperity, there is technology, defined very broadly.

Over the last few decades, innovations in aviation — wider, more efficient jets and the rise of low-cost airlines — significantly reduced the cost of flying. Bigger cruise ships capable of holding many thousands of passengers now take entire floating cities to coastal ports (which is why Venice recently banned these). Then there are the many splendors enabled by the internet, among them online booking, local reviews, smartphone mapping, and ride-hailing and home-sharing, which have collectively democratized pretty much every step involved in travel.

Finally, as in almost every other issue these days, there is the influence of social media.

“You can’t talk about overtourism without mentioning Instagram and Facebook — I think they’re big drivers of this trend,” Francis said. “Seventy-five years ago, tourism was about experience-seeking. Now it’s about using photography and social media to build a personal brand. In a sense, for a lot of people, the photos you take on a trip become more important than the experience.”

That so many different forces play into overtourism highlights the difficulties of doing much about it. Managing a tourist destination is something like managing a natural resource, like a mine or a fishery; a sustainable level of tourists brings widespread gains to the local economy, but too many ruin it for everyone. Cities that are looking to tame the number of tourists must manage a delicate balance — to gently discourage some forms of travel without appearing unwelcoming to others.

That brings us to the hand-wringing over Airbnb, which has been singled out by lawmakers across Europe as a primary driver of overtourism. In Amsterdam, authorities are pushing to slash the number of nights that residents can rent their homes to 30 from 60. Several other cities, including London and Barcelona, Spain, have also instituted stringent home-sharing rules.

The measures reflect Airbnb’s jaw-dropping growth. In just a few years, the company has become a significant force in the tourism economies of many cities. In Amsterdam, according to the company, Airbnb accounted for 12 percent of all overnight bookings in 2017. In Barcelona, Airbnb had an 18 percent market share. And in Kyoto, Japan, it was 22 percent.

But Airbnb — which, like Uber, is a veteran of combating regulatory pushback across the globe — disputes being a cause of overtourism and argues that in many ways it can be a solution. In the company’s report on “healthy tourism” this year, it presented a blizzard of geographic and economic data to show that the service is producing a more “authentic” travel experience.

Airbnb said that because it offered lodging across a city — rather than only in the tourist hot spots where hotels typically congregate — it could distribute crowds more evenly.

In an interview, Chris Lehane, Airbnb’s vice president for public affairs, also argued that the site benefited local economies more directly than hotels did.

“Our local hosts make 97 percent of the money that they list their homes for,” Lehane said. “Our guests stay longer than a typical hotel guest, and they’re spreading the economic gains across a whole community in a way that doesn’t happen with hotels.” He said that while there was some friction with cities over the company’s huge growth, he had seen signs of a more recent thaw.

“Amsterdam is an outlier right now,” he said. “For the most part, we are generally in the ballpark in our discussions with cities.”

Lehane pointed to Barcelona, where Airbnb’s negotiations with authorities over what sort of rules make sense for home-sharing broke down acrimoniously last summer. Since then, the two sides have mended their relationship. Airbnb agreed to remove thousands of listings that violated the city’s rules, as well as to set up a system to collect taxes and help hosts comply with regulations.

These challenges are unlikely to remain fixed for long, because the technology that exacerbates it is always changing. One recent problem is the rise of a more professional class of home-sharers — people who buy up properties to rent out full time on home-sharing sites, often in violation of local rules.

Airbnb said it tries to crack down on rule-breaking hosts, but even some of its nominal allies wonder how diligently.

“The issue for Airbnb, and I’ve said this to them, is that there are listings that are not home-sharing — the people who buy up multiple flats and list them all, which really changes the character of a city,” said Jonathan Tourtellot, the founder of the Sustainable Stewardship Center, a nonprofit group that promotes sustainable tourism. Airbnb commissioned Tourtellot to write the foreword of its report.

Another issue is that Airbnb has faced more competition from newer home-sharing services — and authorities have had trouble policing some of its competitors.

The more general problem is nonstop growth everywhere.

“At the end, this story is just a numbers problem,” Tourtellot said. He noted that in 1960, when the jet age began, around 25 million international trips were taken. Last year, the number was 1.3 billion.

As for the cities that are the major destinations? They are “the same size they were back in 1959 and they’ll probably stay that way,” he said.


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