A chance for cities to reset their relationship with tourists | Notice
Last week was the annual Congress of the Academy of Urbanism, which was held this year in Edinburgh. Except of course not.
We were all sitting at home hearing about Edinburgh, taking virtual walking tours (which were surprisingly effective) but not communicating with each other like we did in those distant pre-pandemic days in places like Eindhoven, Aarhus and Cork.
Fed up with it now – you can’t explore cities virtually. Now that summer is here, I want to be an urban tourist again.
The theme of the congress, designed before the pandemic, was how cities respond to intense pressures, especially from tourism – not city tourism of course, the other kind of crude, alcohol-fueled mass tourism and insensitive to the culture that has taken over many of our cities. It was a theme that is particularly poignant now that these cities have been starved of drugs by covid-19 and have realized how dependent they have become on the tourist pound, the dollar and the euro.
Paul Laurence, the venue’s executive director at Edinburgh City Council, described how the Old Town was known as ‘a theme park with no ticket office’. The streets were so full that the inhabitants could no longer go about their daily business; real stores have been crowded out by tourists and the housing market distorted by Airbnb.
This came to a head with the 2019 New Year celebrations, when the ticket office was finally introduced and residents found themselves asking for passes to access their own homes.
Not this year of course. The people of Edinburgh, as well as those of Amsterdam, Barcelona and Lisbon (who also spoke at the congress) have returned to their city. After the lockdown, shops and bars are open, albeit with some restrictions, but international tourists are largely absent. These towns are experiencing a rare moment of peace.
As one resident of Barcelona‘s Gothic Quarter told Time Magazine: “We saw scenes that we hadn’t seen for a long time. Squares that are normally full of terraces and the tourists were busy with kids playing, or families, or people sunbathing… Now we’re afraid of losing that again. Before the pandemic, he complained, residents had been “relegated to a role of extras on a set”.
Edinburgh, a city of around half a million people, welcomed just under 4 million visitors in 2019, spending £ 1.32 billion (up from £ 250 million in 1990). The Edinburgh Tourism Action Group estimates that this has supported 32,000 jobs, or around 12% of the workforce.
Is this huge growth in tourism a success or not? Like many cities, Edinburgh has vigorously promoted itself as a tourist destination as part of its “growth” strategy. But has the success in attracting visitors come at the expense of the local population? Did he indeed destroy the very thing that these tourists had come to see? It could be called Venice Syndrome, and it’s something the academy has seen in places like Temple Bar in Dublin before.
Barcelona is the city where these problems are most concentrated. Since hosting the 1992 Olympics, it has been overrun with tourists with around 12 million visitors per year. This is the city where tourist buses have been vandalized and graffiti proclaims that “tourists are killing neighborhoods”.
The city has implemented a licensing system for short-term rentals like Airbnb and recently went one step further by banning all room rentals under 30 days in the central area. The Scottish government has also recently introduced a licensing system and allowed councils like Edinburgh to designate areas where a building permit will be required to use a property for short-term rental.
Barcelona went a step further and took advantage of its year without tourists to plan a better relationship between visitors and locals. He’s experimenting with an app to alert visitors when places get too busy and to try to divert them to other areas.
It is spending € 21million (£ 18million) to buy 5,323 business premises for rent from local businesses and organize a two-week festival for the people of La Rambla. It also changed its advertising to target a better class of tourists more interested in culture and less in sunbathing and alcohol.
Good luck with that, especially in the face of an industry screaming for the relaxation of travel restrictions and the reopening of the tourist trade. It’s hard to see how places like Edinburgh won’t find themselves once again swarmed with hordes of visitors that locals may hate but on which the city’s economy has become so dependent.