Travelers to Europe stay at home because of coronavirus
Walking through the streets of Venice usually means jostling yourself against thousands of tourists. But not these days.
“Today is serene and calm,” says Jane Da Mosto, a longtime resident of Venice, who explains that package tourists and visitors to the United States have stayed away this summer due to restrictions related to the coronavirus.
For the first time in years, Da Mosto says she really enjoyed her Italian city. And it’s a similar story in Prague, Amsterdam and elsewhere.
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Over the past decade, these three European cities, in particular, have faced the problem of overtourism, exacerbated by cheap airline tickets and short-term online rental platforms like Airbnb.
But COVID-19 has turned all of that upside down, at least for a while. For a few months this year, locals got to see what their towns looked like when they weren’t overrun with tourists. For many it was a joy to see, although for businesses and municipal tax revenues the economic consequences have been profoundly negative.
Italian “mass tourism”
When two cruise ships announced they were abandoning Venice from their itineraries this summer, Da Mosto – who heads the militant group We Are Here Venice – hailed the news.
Historic Venice has less than 55,000 inhabitants, but it can attract up to 30 million tourists a year. Many of them are day trippers, arriving on colossal cruise ships that enter the port every day, which activists say can damage the fragile lagoon.
But the cruise industry also employs around 5,000 people, and removing Venice from its schedule risks costing local jobs. Da Mosto sympathizes with those who have lost their jobs, but says they should use this time “as an opportunity to improve their skills.”
As for the many souvenir shops and businesses that depend on “mass tourism”, as Da Mosto calls it, she is not worried.
“I think some of the souvenir shops and other types of businesses associated with mass tourism are also on the darker end of organized crime,” she speculated. “So if the life of these sectors has become more difficult, it is better for society as a whole.”
It is not known how long the two cruise lines will avoid Venice, and Pier Paolo Baretta, Under Secretary of State at the Italian Ministry of Economy and Finance, said: “The loss of the cruise industry is economic damage that Venice cannot afford.
Czech “ghost town”
In Prague, Janek Rubes runs the Honest Guide YouTube channel for visitors to the Czech capital. He says his city was transformed earlier this summer, as the Czech Republic was one of the first EU countries to close its borders and impose a lockdown when the first wave of coronavirus cases hit in March last. Without tourists, the Czech capital was deserted.
“The city has become a ghost town,” Rubes described. “It was kind of like a Disneyland because suddenly you had all the attractions. And I am not talking about historical attractions, but about everything that is done for tourists.
Bars and restaurants that once catered only to tourists have ended up with no customers. Some have adapted to the change, switching their menus from English to Czech and lowering their prices in an attempt to attract local customers. But as the summer wore on, tourists started to return and the bars reverted to their old ways, gradually raising prices, Rubes says.
“[Prague] it was kind of like a Disneyland because suddenly you had all the attractions. And I am not talking about historical attractions, but about everything that is done for tourists.
“They were slowly increasing the price of beer from two euros, to three euros, then to four euros, then five euros,” he added. “Every week, beer got more expensive.
Being able to walk around town and cross the picturesque Charles Bridge without fighting the crowds was beautiful, says Rubes, but there was also something poignant about the absence of people.
“It was interesting to see the city and the streets without millions of tourists,” he said. “But eventually you realize that cities are made for people and that they are made for people to live in.”
Dutch “economic problems”
In Amsterdam, Bert Nap lives next to the city’s red light district and enjoyed a night’s sleep without being woken up by ‘tourists screaming as usual’.
But this joy was only felt during the first months of confinement. After the rules were relaxed in May, tourists returned and chaos resumed.
For cities like Prague and Amsterdam, it is not only the amount of tourists that the authorities want to restrict but also the type of tourist. Nap says that by the time the lockdown ended, the very tourists the city is trying not to attract began to return in droves.
“What we saw was that in the surrounding European countries, young people got in their cars and drove straight to Amsterdam for cafes, drinking alcohol and partying in the red light district,” Nap said. “So, this is just the kind of tourism that we fear and have always complained about.”
The city council agrees with locals like Nap that Amsterdam needs to attract a different caliber of visitors, one who comes for the culture and not just the cafes and sex clubs.
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Last year, the Dutch tourism authorities went so far as to stop advertising the Netherlands as a tourist destination. District governor Mascha ten Bruggencate said she enjoys the tranquility of the city center without crowds of visitors, but admits their absence has taken a heavy toll on local businesses.
The restaurant industry predicts that 30% of its owners could go bankrupt, she says, as new restrictions take effect this month. Financial packages are being made available to the hotel industry, but everyone, including the local government, is strapped for funds.
“We are really expecting huge economic problems because of this coronavirus,” added ten Bruggencate, although she also said the government is offering financial support programs.
“Las Vegas for Europe”
In Venice, the hotel sector has been hit hard. The absence of American tourists, as well as walk-in visitors from across Europe and beyond, is a big blow to the industry.
Lorenza Lain, general manager of the 5 star Ca’Sagredo hotel, says luxury independent hotels have done better than their 2 and 3 star counterparts as they have a consistent number of regular visitors from Italy and the countries of the Surrounding EU. But the profits are still falling.
Despite this, Lain hopes that the mayor of Venice, Luigi Brugnaro, will stick to his plan to limit the number of visitors who can enter the city. In 2019, the mayor proposed a new reservation system to encourage visitors to book their entry before arriving in Venice.
A new tourist tax which was to be introduced this summer was however removed due to the pandemic. Environmental activist Jane Da Mosto is less confident that city officials will stick to their guns. Many of those officials who make decisions about Venice’s future don’t actually live in the historic city, she says.
There is another hurdle that cities like Venice and Prague face. Even though mayors come up with plans to tackle overtourism, the ultimate power to effect change often lies with regional and national governments.
In Prague, Mayor Zdeněk Hřib tried to tackle the problems caused by short-term rental platforms and submitted a bill proposing new restrictions to the Czech parliament.
Hřib says he has already taken steps in recent months to shut down fraudulent exchange offices and improve the appearance of central Prague, forcing restaurants to move their signs and seats to side streets. And, like the authorities in Amsterdam, he is keen to attract a different kind of tourist.
“Instead of being seen as the pub of Europe, we would like to change the perception of Prague,” says Hřib.
Janek Rubes of Honest Guide agrees that Prague has an image problem. “Prague has become a kind of Las Vegas for Europe,” he said. “In the United States, if you want to party with your friends, you go to Las Vegas. Nobody really cares if you party on the street because that was what it was for. But Prague was not made for that. Yet we have become that place over the past few years.
Amsterdam’s red light district relocation proposals last year met fierce opposition from the sex industry, but Ten Bruggencate says despite the slowdown, those plans are still on the table. Sex workers say their earnings have been hit particularly hard, as the clubs were the last businesses to reopen after the lockdown was lifted.
With new restrictions reimposed in the Netherlands this month, the red light district has once again closed its doors. Ten Bruggencate agrees that there is a balance between having the kind of city that residents love to live in and that tourists love to visit. But no one knows how diligently cities will reduce tourist numbers after the pandemic ends if their own economies are in the doldrums.
For Bert Nap, the pandemic has given him back a city he could only dream of. But this dream is also a nightmare, he says, that ruins lives and businesses. He might finally be able to have a peaceful night’s sleep, but not everyone would have wanted it that way.