Across Europe, historic cities are buckling. Mass tourism, encouraged by cash-hungry councils after the 2008 crash and fuelled by the explosion of cheap flights and online room rentals, has become a monster. The backlash, however, has begun.
In the past decade, the number of low-cost airline seats available each year in Europe has risen by more than 10% annually, more than doubling to more than 500m.
Meanwhile Airbnb, the biggest but far from only holiday lettings platform, has reported triple-digit growth in several European cities over the past five years, driving 10 of them to ask the EU for help. The cities have between 10,000 and 60,000 listings each.
The net result is that over the course of a year, popular short-break destinations such as Amsterdam and Barcelona host upwards of 18,000 visitors for each inhabitant, prompting angry protests from locals and forcing city halls to take action.
It is not always evident, however, what that action should be – or if it will work. The trade-off between the revenues and jobs generated through tourism and quality of life is a tricky one. So the idea is not discouragement but management, say city halls.
Overtourism in the historic centre of Amsterdam had gone beyond the already extreme nuisance of drunken visitors vomiting nightly on 17th-century doorsteps and urinating copiously in canals, according to city hall.
With more than 19 million tourists in 2018 thronging a warren of narrow streets and alleyways that are home to 850,000 people, it was getting dangerous. “At times there was a real safety concern,” said Vera Al, of the finance and economic affairs department.
The most crowded parts of the city – the red light district and the main nightlife areas of Rembrandtplein and Leidseplein – were becoming unliveable; in the old centre shops selling wooden tulips, vacuum-packed cheese or cannabis seeds were replacing chemists, greengrocers and hairdressers. Doctors could no longer find surgery space.
More than 60,000 jobs in Amsterdam are directly linked to tourism and visitors to the city spend more than €6bn (£5bn) annually.
But over the past two years, the council has adopted tough measures. Tour coaches have mostly been banished to the outskirts and new shops catering solely to tourists have been outlawed by rewritten zoning regulations.
There will be no new hotels once developers have exhausted existing licenses. Pending a possible outright ban in some neighbourhoods, Airbnb-style lets must sleep no more than four and cannot be let for more than 30 days a year.
A tourist tax has been launched: €3 per person per night, on top of a 7% levy on each hotel room (10% on accommodation booked person-to-person online). “Tourists increase the cost of policing and cleaning the public space,” said Al, who works with deputy mayor Victor Everhardt. “We say it’s only fair they should contribute to them.”
Some of the worst excesses, such as beer bikes – a pedal-powered mobile bar groups of drinkers – have been outlawed in the city centre. Tours of the red light district’s windows, running once every couple of minutes, are to be banned from 1 April, when all guided tours of the old centre will also require permits.
The new mayor, Femke Halsema, has even tabled four possible options for the historic sex workers’ district, known as De Wallen. These include relocating all or part of it to other parts of the city, which would be a big call, politically, for part of the fabric of old Amsterdam.
Somewhat less controversially, city hall has run several successful tourist awareness campaigns, including plastering large posters portraying residentson city centre doors, each bearing the slogan “We live here.”
The concerted drive involves the mayor and all eight deputies. “It crosses all departments,” Al said. “None of it is rocket science, and we hope that taken together these measures will add up.”
Nationally, said Elsje van Vuuren of the Dutch tourist board NBTC, the strategy is about dispersing visitors to lesser-known but equally attractive towns. The board has stopped promoting the Netherlands as a destination and aims instead to better manage the flow.
Amsterdam has no illusions, however, that its programme will reduce the number of tourists visiting the city – or even significantly slow a rate of growth due to bring 40 million visitors a year to the Netherlands by 2030.
“The focus is really about restoring liveability for all those who have been affected,” said Al. “It’s about making residents feel at home again. They shouldn’t feel like strangers in their own city. We believe a city is first for living in. Only second for visiting.”
About 30 million people will visit Barcelona this year, a seemingly unstoppable tide, which has prompted exasperated residents to resort to ill-concealed irony.
“Don’t tell anyone you have been on holiday to Barcelona,” reads one leaflet recently handed out to tourists. “They will steal the city from us, and it will stop being attractive to you and liveable for us.”
The city’s response is improved management. Its Plan 2020 initiative aims to change “from managing tourism in the city, to managing the tourist city” – although Xavier Marcé, the councillor responsible, insists residents take priority.
“I’m not interested in managing a tourist city,” he said. Dispersal is the answer, Marcé believes: the problem is not so much that Barcelona has sold itself but that it’s sold itself badly. Aware the sector brings in about €10bn a year, he said: “We don’t want more tourists but that doesn’t mean we want fewer.”
As the city’s well-known sites, such as the Sagrada Familia, la Rambla and Park Güell are over-subscribed, the idea is to divert people to other areas and activities. The city is in talks with booking.com and others to devise an alternative visitor’s package.
Barcelona has also declared a moratorium on new hotels in its most touristed areas, pushing visitors to the periphery (although as Pere Mariné of the 120-member Federation of Barcelona Residents’ Associations noted, where people sleep “doesn’t make much difference. They all want to go to the Sagrada Familia.”)
Despite trying hard, the city seems unable to control the rise of Airbnb and others. According to a Victoria University study, Barcelona has the highest density of tourist apartments in Europe: 12 for every 1,000 residents, compared with 10 in Rome and seven in London.
For residents, this has translated into a 50% rent increase over the past five years. A 24-year-old earning an average wage now faces a monthly rent equal to 114% of their salary. As a result, about 80% of 16- to 30-year-olds still live with their parents.
The battle to reduce the number of available beds will not affect the millions of daytrippers. As many as 20,000 a day disembark from cruise ships to head for the sites but spend little ashore. More arrive by coach, clogging up and polluting the city.
Marcé plans to force coaches to park on Barcelona’s perimeter and their passengers to use the already saturated public transport network; extra buses will be financed by a new Barcelona tourist tax, he says.
While residents are fed up with mass tourism, Mariné says there is no real popular movement for change, partly because tourists mean jobs. A demo with the slogan “Barcelona is not for sale” drew 2,000 people: “That’s not going to change anything.”
Ultimately, the city’s powers are limited and the Catalan regional government tends to share the hospitality industry’s view that more is better. As tour operators survey the growing Asian market, millions more are due to discover Barcelona’s not-so-secret treasures. Stephen Burgen
Sick of the sight of tourists picnicking on the steps of Renaissance monuments, the mayor of Florence, Dario Nardella, announced in 2017 that he would douse the surfaces with water to keep people at bay.
The hosepipe ploy never became permanent, only being used a couple of times on the steps of key monuments, such as the Basilica of Santa Croce, the burial place of Michelangelo, and the Chiesa di Santo Spirito. But the message resonated.
“There does seem to have been a rise in awareness and sensitivity among visitors,” said Cecilia Del Re, Florence’s councillor for tourism and the environment. “We did a lot of campaigning, telling people not to throw their rubbish on the street and to respect the city, and this is showing some results.”
Hefty fines for people caught scrawling their name on the Ponte Vecchio or peeing in the street in the historic centre, a Unesco world heritage site, have also improved decorum.
Attracting 14 million tourists a year, Florence is Italy’s most-visited city after Venice and Rome. Boasting a huge and rich variety of the world’s heritage and surrounded by Tuscany’s rolling hills, the city’s popularity is easy to understand.
But as with Venice and Rome, the growth in tourism has seen residents driven out of town by the rising cost of living and arrival of Airbnb: according to a Siena university study, one in five properties in the historic centre is advertised as a short-term let.
Some measures, however, seem to be paying off. “One of the main issues is that everyone is so focused on the historic centre, which is only a 5km sq area in a city of 105km sq,” said Del Re. “So we are heavily promoting areas outside of the centre.
“We are also close to launching an app that will direct people to other sites if, for example, the Uffizi Gallery is too crowded.” The city is also working with lesser known, but equally beautiful, towns in Tuscany, such as Arezzo, to promote them.
City leaders are against imposing daily limits on the numbers who can enter the centre, but have increased tenfold the cost of taking tour buses that bring people to the city for a couple of hours. They are also promoting “congress tourism”, where people visit the city for a conference or business meeting and stay for a few days.
Meanwhile, Florence authorities have converted some public property into social housing to motivate young people to move in. “We want to re-incentivise people to live in the historic centre,” said Del Re. Angela Guiffrida
The crowds surging into Prague’s majestic Old Town Square to witness last year’s seasonal illumination of Christmas lights were so vast that ambulance crews and squads of police officers were needed in case things got out of hand.
The packed scene and cosmopolitan nature of the gathered multitudes seemed to attest to a marketing triumph that had assisted the Czech capital’s arrival as a first-rank global tourist draw.
Yet the vast number of foreign visitors crammed into the modestly sized square crystallised what has become one of Prague authorities’ biggest headaches, prompting a major rethink of its tourism strategy that may eventually include a crackdown on short-term lettings.
The sheer numbers drawn by the beautiful but relatively small medieval old town – encompassing Prague castle, the 600-year-old Charles bridge and a maze of ancient cobbled streets – has put a strain on resources and quality of life that many long-established residents find intolerable.
A rising exodus of native residents and the growth of often tacky tourist shops at the expense of those catering for locals finally forced the authorities to act.
The first step is a major publicity campaign to encourage visitors to explore greater Prague, a city of 1.4 million residents, beyond the limited quarter on either bank of the River Vltava, where the majority of its most storied buildings, as well as touristy restaurants and pubs, are located.
“Too many people are coming just for a very small number of purposes, of buildings,” said Pavel Čižinský, the former mayor of the Prague 1 municipality, which includes the historic old town district. “To disperse the tourists more, I think it is necessary to involve more those who are running the tourist industry.
“The guides must say to their groups, do you want to go through these crowds where everything is twice as expensive, or do you want to go and see something which is maybe half a kilometre from Charles bridge, but which is also nice.”
The local tourist authority has published brochures called Prague Walks promoting the attractions of other neighbourhoods of historic interest, including Vinohrady, Karlín, Holešovice and Žižkov. For the strategy to work, however, strategists need to succeed in a far trickier goal: persuading visitors to come back for another look.
“We are trying to inspire repeated visits to Prague, and to motivate visitors to stay longer,” said Barbora Hrubá, spokesperson for Prague city tourism authority. “So far 70% of visitors to Prague are here for the first time. It’s understandable that the likelihood that they will leave the city centre is limited.”
Compounding the rising volume of visitors has been the growth of alcohol-fuelled tourism spurred by the Czech Republic’s deserved reputation as home to some of the world’s best, and cheapest, beer.
Lucrative organised pub crawls and stag nights have become the bane of many locals’ lives, with high noise levels and rowdy behaviour commonplace in a city centre residential area that is home to about 25,000 Praguers. Robert Tait