After a year without rowdy tourists, European cities want it to be |
On a warm Friday evening in July, the sun seemed to linger behind the low skyline of 16th-century Amsterdam. In the Red Light District, the rush of tourists that was common before the pandemic was long gone, allowing a delivery guy to easily walk past a handful of onlookers around the Old Town’s famous storefronts.
While six German men in matching t-shirts ignored signs warning of a € 95 ($ 112) fine as they drank beers on a nearby catwalk, they were the exception. Most of the time, only small groups of calm walkers were present on this summer evening.
Centuries before its most sinister attractions took hold, Amsterdam was already a tourist draw. As early as 1345, when a host in a local church apparently proved indestructible, pilgrims flocked to see the miracle host. In modern times, much less spiritual pursuits have drawn millions of people to the city’s quaint, canal-lined neighborhoods. And noise, garbage and violence followed.
The city was already scrambling to find ways to curb tourist trade before the coronavirus hit. Heavy fines for drinking alcohol in public, strict restrictions on short-term rentals, and outright bans on certain types of stores have been implemented. But more and more visitors were arriving. In 2019, their number was approaching 9 million, or more than 10 per capita.
Then everything stopped. For months, tourists were nowhere to be found as the borders were hermetically sealed. Later, as the waves of infection subsided, only a trickle returned. Overall, shopping establishments in Amsterdam have seen almost 25% fewer visitors since the arrival of COVID-19.
Even in the Red Light District, the lack of drunken revelers remains apparent despite the lifting of many restrictions. Locals wander wide-eyed through a part of the city they rarely visit, in awe of its architectural beauty. Among city officials, this tiny silver lining of a global health disaster has planted a seed. While Amsterdam arguably needs tourism to survive, perhaps this once-in-a-century pandemic could be used to remake the way the city embraces it.
As it turned out, local officials from other tourist hot spots across Europe had the same idea.
Cities across the continent want to mold tours into forms that are less expensive for residents, and possibly more lucrative for businesses. Ideally, a virtuous circle can be created where loud revelers are supplanted by museum goers with more money to spend, at least that’s what you think.
Call it organized tourism.
“We met representatives from Amsterdam, Barcelona and Florence during the pandemic, and we all thought the same,” said Hana Třeštíková, Prague tourism advisor. “Before COVID, over-tourism had become almost unbearable, and COVID took a break to try to make changes to what our cities stand for, how we promote ourselves, and how we need to focus on the quality of the visits and not the quantity. “
It wasn’t that long ago that these cities were selling to everyone. But the widely available cannabis and legal prostitution of Amsterdam, Barcelona’s urban beaches and Prague’s famous breweries increasingly attracted tourists who brought in what Geerte Udo, director of Amsterdam & partners, diplomatically called “effects negative ”.
When much of Europe closed its doors last year, Amsterdam’s medieval center – a UNESCO World Heritage Site – took on “breathtaking beauty,” Udo said, whose non-profit organization serves as a civic stimulant. The vacuum also revealed how few residents live there, she said. “You feel like it’s no more than a theatrical backdrop.”
But the pandemic has also shown how important tourist euros are to the livelihoods of these cities. About 13% of Barcelona’s economy and 11% of Amsterdam’s jobs can be linked to visitors.
Lénia Marques, Assistant Professor of Cultural Organization and Management at Erasmus University Rotterdam, said cities were thinking: “Who is the tourist we invite? Do we want this mass to need more hotels, or are we looking for tourists more interested in our culture, a tourist who will appreciate more what we have and can spend more? “
In recent years, Prague’s tourism problem has started to resemble Amsterdam’s, Třeštíková said. The Czech capital received 8 million visitors a year, almost doubling between 2012 and 2019. And like Amsterdam, most were heading to the same neighborhoods, she said. In the case of Prague, they obstruct the Old Town Square and Charles Bridge.
“The city center is no longer a residential community,” said Třeštíková. “There aren’t many apartments, and these are largely occupied by expatriates or converted into hotels and short-term rentals. We have to focus on what the residents need and show a city that is not a movie set but alive with people from Prague. “
But reshaping a city’s tourism business is more difficult than simply changing the marketing businesses. Třeštíková said the main factors behind “low quality” visits are not under the city’s control. The cost of tickets on low-cost airlines, the number of Airbnb units and even the price of beer can only be changed nationally, she said.
A spokesperson for the Czech Ministry of Regional Development acknowledged that taxes on alcohol and air travel are determined by parliament, but noted that the Prague city council can submit legislative proposals. A city bill that would give municipalities more power to regulate short-term rentals is currently under consideration, he said.
Located in the most visited part of the second most visited country in the world (after France), Barcelona faces a unique challenge when it comes to transforming tourism. While the “negative effects” of the Spanish city are less extreme than those suffered by Amsterdam or Prague, Xavier Marcé, city councilor for tourism and creative industries, said he wanted to attract tourists interested in more than its seaside location.
“When I visit New York, I’m interested in what New Yorkers are doing,” he said. “It’s much better to have a tourism model linked to culture or science, because that means there is a link with the inhabitant.”
To that end, Barcelona designed a network of bus stops to distribute visitors more evenly across the city while freezing new licenses for short-term rentals, the abuse of which has been a key cause of overtourism, said Marcé.
Airbnb advertises “apartments, but they don’t check the legal status of those apartments,” Marcé said. “It’s when we let them know the apartment is illegal when they immediately remove it.” Andreu Castellano, a spokesperson for Airbnb, said the company has been working with Barcelona officials since 2018 to ditch operators “who don’t play by the rules.” He added that “over 7,000 bad actors have been removed as a result.”
In Italy, some Venetians want to do the opposite of what Barcelona are trying. “Expanding tourism? It’s worse,” said Melissa Conn, director of the nonprofit Save Venice. Conn said she prefers visitors to stay in Piazza San Marco so residents can have the rest of the city to themselves. Save Venice vice president Alberto Nardi agreed, but warned tourism is essential to the city’s survival. The owner of a jewelry store in the square, Nardi, said Venice’s population is declining, its cost of living is rising and non-tourism jobs are disappearing.
Venice must “develop different businesses from tourism,” said Nardi.
For cities looking to change who callers, any effort requires an advertising campaign. Amsterdam has launched such an effort, spending € 160,000 to “stimulate desired behaviors” by tourists, including attracting different people. Deputy Mayor for Economic Affairs Victor Everhardt announced the initiative in June, which includes advertisements aimed at city dwellers in neighboring countries such as France, Belgium and the UK.
“We focus on people who are interested in culture in the broadest sense of the term,” he said. “We’re trying to persuade them to visit all these other beautiful parts of town.”
Even before COVID, officials in Prague hired an agency that sought to persuade tourists “to come for more than two nights.” During the short-term reopening in summer 2020, the city launched “Prague Unlocked”, a campaign aimed at a Czech audience, as foreign travelers were still scarce. It was a success. Usually only 15% of Prague tourists are domestic (compared to 20% in Vienna and almost 50% in Paris.) But in 2020 the number of Czech visitors increased by 16%, with many staying in three and four star hotels, said Třetíková.
Then there is the other side of the equation. Udo of Amsterdam & partners said his group was pressuring the Dutch government to impose a minimum price on airline tickets, while others wanted to ban Airbnb from the city altogether. Barcelona last month instituted a new tax on stays in tourist establishments which goes to the municipal government. It could raise up to 16.5 million euros per year with the income used to promote less frequented neighborhoods, such as Poblenou and Gràcia.
Technology is also being used to redirect tourist flows. “Amsterdam is working with the phone companies to find out how many people are in certain areas, and then they can take action to keep more people out,” Erasmus University Marques said. When the areas get too crowded, visitors will receive a text message with an offer for an attraction in another part of the city. If things really go wrong, candlesticks will be erected to prevent more people from entering the crowded area, she said.
But any plan that risks cutting tourists’ money – even for a short time – risks running into problems with businesses already deeply affected by the pandemic. For organized tourism to have a chance, said Marcé of Barcelona, a city’s hotel sector must be on board.
“Barcelona’s hotel industry is very strong,” he said. “You can’t say all of a sudden that there will be half as many tourists.”