Why some European cities want to keep tourists away

On a warm Friday evening in July, the sun seemed to linger behind Amsterdam‘s low sixteenth-century skyline. 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 (£ 81) 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, significantly fewer spiritual activities have drawn millions of people to the city’s picturesque, 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 nine million – more than ten 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, nearly 25% fewer tourists have visited business establishments in Amsterdam 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.

It turns out that other tourist hot spots across Europe have the same idea.

Cities want to mold tours into forms that are cheaper 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.

We need to focus on the needs of residents and show a city that is not a movie set but alive with people from Prague

Call it organized tourism.

Hana Třeštíková, Prague Tourism Advisor, said: “We met representatives from Amsterdam, Barcelona and Florence during the pandemic and we all thought the same. Before Covid, over-tourism had become almost unbearable and Covid took a break to try to make some changes in what our cities represent, 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, the urban beaches of Barcelona and the famous breweries of Prague are attracting more and more tourists who have brought what Geerte Udo, director of Amsterdam & Partners, diplomatically calls ” negative effects “.

When much of Europe closed its doors last year, Amsterdam’s medieval center – a Unesco World Heritage site – took on “breathtaking beauty,” says Udo, whose the non-profit association serves as a civic stimulant. The void also revealed how few locals live there, she said: “You feel it’s not [much] more than a theatrical backdrop.

But the pandemic has also shown how important tourist euros are to the livelihoods of these cities. About 13 percent of Barcelona’s economy and 11 percent of Amsterdam’s jobs can be linked to visitors.

Lénia Marques, Assistant Professor of Cultural Organization and Management at Erasmus University Rotterdam, explains that cities are thinking: “’Who is the tourist we invite? Do we want this mass to need more hotels, or are we looking for tourists who are more interested in our culture, a tourist who will appreciate more what we have – and can spend more?

In recent years, Prague’s tourist problem has started to resemble that of Amsterdam, says Třeštíková. The Czech capital received eight million visitors a year, almost doubling between 2012 and 2019 and like Amsterdam, most were heading to the same neighborhoods. In the case of Prague, they obstruct the Old Town Square and Charles Bridge.

Třeštíková says: “The city center is no longer a residential place. There are not many apartments and these are largely occupied by expatriates or converted into hotels and short term rentals. We need to focus on what the residents need and show a city that is not a movie set but alive with people from Prague.

No tourist buys postcards in Amsterdam


But reshaping a city’s tourism business is more difficult than simply changing the marketing businesses. Třeštíková says that the main factors behind “poor quality” tours 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 city are less extreme than those suffered by Amsterdam or Prague, Xavier Marcé, city councilor for tourism and creative industries, says he wants to attract tourists interested in more than its seaside location.

He says, “When I visit New York, I’m interested in what New Yorkers are doing. It is much better to have a tourism model linked to culture or science because it means that there is a link with the resident.

Barcelona have 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, Marcé says.

Marcé says Airbnb “advertises apartments but they don’t verify the legal status of those apartments. It is when we let them know that the apartment is illegal that 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 eliminated as a result”.

In Italy, some Venetians want to do the opposite of what Barcelona are trying. Melissa Conn, director of the US charity Save Venice, says: “Expanding tourism? It’s worse. ”She says she prefers visitors to stay in Piazza San Marco so residents can have the rest of the city to themselves. agrees but warns tourism is essential to the city’s survival.Owner of a jewelry store in the square, Nardi says Venice’s population is declining, its cost of living is rising and non-tourism jobs are disappearing .

Venice must “develop businesses different from tourism,” he said.

For cities looking to change who callers, any effort requires an advertising campaign. Amsterdam has launched such an effort, spending € 160,000 to “stimulate the desired behavior” by tourists – including attracting different people. Deputy Mayor for Economic Affairs Victor Everhardt announced the initiative in June, which includes advertisements aimed at urban residents in neighboring countries such as France, Belgium and the UK.

An empty bank, apart from ducks, on the Vltava river near Charles Bridge in March of last year in Prague


He says, “We focus on people who are interested in culture in the broadest sense. We try to persuade them to visit all these other beautiful parts of the city.

Even before Covid, officials in Prague hired an agency that sought to persuade tourists “to come for more than two nights.” During the short-lived 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 percent of Prague tourists are domestic (compared to 20 percent in Vienna and almost 50 percent in Paris). But in 2020, the number of Czech visitors increased by 16%, with many staying in three and four-star hotels, Třeštíková said.

Then there is the other side of the equation. Udo of Amsterdam & Partners says his group is lobbying the Dutch government to impose a minimum price on airline tickets, while others want to ban Airbnb from the city altogether. Barcelona has instituted a new tax on stays in tourist establishments which falls to the municipal government. It could raise up to 16.5 million euros per year with the revenues used to promote less frequented neighborhoods.

Technology is also being used to redirect tourist flows. “Amsterdam is working with the telephone companies to find out how many people are in certain areas, and then they can take action to prevent more people from entering,” said Lenia Marques of Erasmus University. 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 says.

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, says Marcé of Barcelona, ​​a city’s hotel sector must be on board.

He says: “Barcelona’s hotel industry is very strong. We cannot suddenly say that there will be half as many tourists.

© The Washington Post

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