Wednesday, June 19, 2024

As ‘overtourism’ pushes Europe to the limit, some are fighting back

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From his house in the village of Deià, surrounded by orange and lemon trees on a slope above the Mediterranean, Robert Graves saw the advance of the “invasion of mass tourism” on Mallorca. “The still unexploited Mallorcan hinterland is constantly shrinking as the roads improve,” the British poet and author observed in 1965. “Where shall we retreat?” Already he listened to loudspeaker-wielding guides telling busloads of tourists outside his house that it was home to a “famous American writer”.

Although he feared the incursions of “German colonists”, Graves believed Deià to be “inaccessible to the mass-tourist”. His son William, 83, however, has lived long enough to see him proved wrong. “The boom in tourist rental accommodation means that most locals have been priced out or have sold up and left,” he said. In front of the house, now a museum run by him, a line of rental cars suggests another problem. “The village is overrun by these vehicles. Of course it gets far worse in July and August.”

Driving out of the village, his point is vividly underscored. A local, reversing out from a side road blocked by traffic, crashes into Graves’s car, smashing the front passenger window. Nobody is hurt. “I just had the car cleaned yesterday,” he says with a laugh, brushing away broken glass. “But you see the problem.”

The tourist “saturation” in Deia is replicated in towns and villages across Mallorca as well as the other Balearic Islands, several of the Canary islands and parts of Spain’s major cities, such as Madrid, Barcelona and Seville. Anger against increased property prices and other effects of “over-tourism” have prompted thousands of residents to protest in the Balearic and Canary islands in recent weeks.

Thousands of demonstrators took to the street in Mallorca in May to protest against ‘excessive tourism’ which they blame for overwhelming the popular holiday island

SOLARPIX

Since the end of the pandemic a surge in tourism is sparking concerns elsewhere in Europe, particularly in France and Italy. A poll in February by the Opinionway Institute found that 41 per cent of French people had “suffered from overtourism”, either because their own vacations had been ruined by crowds of sightseers or because they lived near locations hit by queues, rubbish, traffic jams and environmental damage caused by holidaymakers.

Andrew Holden, professor in tourism at Goldsmiths, University of London, charts the rise in tourism. In 1950, there were 25 million international tourist arrivals globally; that rose to 278 million in 1980; then 682 million by 2000; and 1.46 billion by pre-pandemic 2019. “Economic growth and rises in disposable income are the linchpins,” he said, “hence an increase in numbers of the Chinese and Indian middle classes travelling abroad.”

Record numbers of visitors are heaping pressure on communities and infrastructure often in places where drought and climate change are taking a toll on resources such as water, said Juan Ignacio Pulido, professor of tourism economics at the University of Jaén, southern Spain. In Catalonia, the regional government has imposed limits on hotel water use for the first time. In Banyalbufar, a Mallorcan village, tourists are asked to use water sparingly as the “supply in recent years has greatly decreased”.

A demonstration organised by the No Grandi Navi Committee in Venice against the construction of new excavations to allow for large cruise ships in the Venice lagoon

A demonstration organised by the No Grandi Navi Committee in Venice against the construction of new excavations to allow for large cruise ships in the Venice lagoon

SPLASH

Pulido said the reasons for the rising numbers include “the role of social networks” in promoting travel and “the obsession of politicians and public managers to measure the success of tourism through the number of tourists, without realising that more tourists is not necessarily better for the destination”. Also, he added, “the pandemic generated a lot of anxiety in people and, for the first time in their lives, the feeling that you have to make the most of your time, that life is very short and you have to enjoy it”.

France, the world’s most popular tourist destination, exceeded pre-Covid tourism levels in 2023, rising by 7 million to 98 million visitors from other countries. They spent €63.5 billion, helping to sustain 1.29 million jobs. But not everyone is enthusiastic. From the creeks of the Calanques National Park in Marseilles on the Mediterranean to Mont-Saint-Michel in Normandy, there is growing angst over “le surtourisme”.

Spain follows closely behind. A record 85.3 million international tourists visited the country in 2023, 17.3 million of them British, generating close to 13 per cent of GDP. The forecast for 2024 is for up to 100 million visitors. Twenty million of those are expected in Mallorca where tourism directly generates 45 per cent of the island’s GDP but indirectly is estimated by officials to contribute more than 90 per cent.

The Can Vivot palace in the centre of Palma, Mallorca’s capital, is a picture of faded grandeur. Its owner, Pedro de Montaner, the count of Zavellá, laments the “destruction” of the historic heart of the city. “Over the last 20 years I have lost all my neighbours to tourist development. The entire community has gone and now we are surrounded by hotels and tourist rental flats. The city has sold itself,” he said.

In Venice, where visitor numbers often exceed the city’s 50,000 residents, authorities this year introduced a €5 ticket on busy days, a world first, but they are not capping visitor numbers

In Venice, where visitor numbers often exceed the city’s 50,000 residents, authorities this year introduced a €5 ticket on busy days, a world first, but they are not capping visitor numbers

GETTY

Montaner, a former director of the city’s archives, recognises the benefits of tourism on the island’s economy — two years ago he opened his palace to visitors “by appointment”. “But the palace is the only one left in the city not converted into a hotel or flats,” he said. “We are fighting to resist pressure from hotels to buy us up. We finance ourselves but the red tape preventing us from taking initiatives like hosting events is stifling us.”

Anger over the effects of tourism has made unusual bedfellows in Mallorca. A protest in Palma on May 25, demanding a freeze on tourist rentals and measures to ensure access to housing, was prompted by a video made by a leftist civic group from Sencelles, a town in the island interior with a population of 3,000.

“We started noticing that more and more of our friends and neighbours were having to leave the town, or even the islands, as the rents have doubled,” said Javier Barbero, a leading member of the group. “It was a knock-on effect from foreigners buying property and the growth of tourist accommodation in Palma. So we made a video showing how people were disappearing from our community and it went viral.”

The large protest in Palma on May 25, demanding a freeze on tourist rentals and measures to ensure access to housing, was prompted by a video made by a leftist civic group from the town of Sencelles

The large protest in Palma on May 25, demanding a freeze on tourist rentals and measures to ensure access to housing, was prompted by a video made by a leftist civic group from the town of Sencelles

SOLARPIX

Along with other platforms, they staged a protest in which they say 25,000 people took part. Officials estimated 10,000. Like the Canary island protest a month before, it struck a chord across Spain. In the Canary Islands houses are almost 16 per cent more expensive than a year ago. The increase is 11.5 per cent in the Balearic Islands, where they are the most expensive of all, with an average of €4,322 per square metre. Some 400 people are living in caravans in Palma because they cannot afford to rent a property, La Vanguardia reported, and nurses and police officers struggle to afford to live on the islands. Another mass protest on Mallorca and the other Balearic islands has been called for July 21.

Between 2010 and 2018 tourist accommodation increased by 80 per cent in Spain. Ordinary rental stock has suffered a 30 per cent decline and a 12 per cent increase in price. In the centre of Madrid, almost one out of every ten properties is dedicated to tourism. In the centre of Malaga the figure is one in four. In a recent editorial, El País urged that “the different authorities must now seek joint solutions in accordance with the urgency of the problem”.

Across Spain anger is growing over the proliferation of unlicensed tourist accommodation. This week the government said it would investigate media platforms that advertise illegal tourist flats. The pressure on housing prices caused by tourism is mirrored in neighbouring Portugal, which keeps setting new records for the amount of foreign tourist arrivals it draws. The sector accounts for about 15 per cent of the country’s economic output, generating record revenues of €25 billion last year. The price of homes in Portugal has more than doubled over the past decade.

It is not just property prices but the sheer number of tourists choking major attractions or parts of cities that have caused concern. In Mallorca, the mayor of Palma has proposed to limit the number of tourists entering the city, whose area around its cathedral can be overwhelmed when several cruise ships, some carrying 7,000 passengers, dock on the same day.

Barcelona this week announced plans to spend €44 million to better manage the crowds at 16 hotspots, including the Sagrada Família basilica, including the deployment of more police and cleaners.

Among the sites under pressure in France are Étretat, a Normandy village with a population of 1,200, which attracts about 1.5 million tourists a year following its appearance in the Netflix series Lupin — sometimes with dramatic consequences, as in 2022 when three people fell off the cliffs to their death while trying to take selfies.

On the Atlantic coast, the Pilat Dune is also under pressure, with 1.5 million people climbing it last year in what environmentalists say is a threat to biodiversity and a source of pollution, with most visitors arriving in cars. In the south, officials have opted to restrict access to the Sugiton and Pierres Tombées creeks in the Calanques National Park in Marseilles in the summer. Visitors need to book, with 400 places available a day. The tickets are free but anyone caught in the creeks without one can be fined €68

President Macron’s government disputes claims that France is burdened by too many tourists, although it recognises there is a problem caused by the tendency to congregate in some spots at some times of the year. “We don’t talk about overtourism, we talk about peaks [in visitor numbers] at some times in some places,” a tourist ministry official said, pointing out that 80 per cent of holidaymakers were crammed into just 20 per cent of the country. The official said Macron’s aim was not to reduce the number of people visiting France but to spread out their visits. He said the government planned to set up an “observatory of tourism” that would provide data on which tourist sites suffered from overcrowding at which times.

In Italy narrow cliff paths at Cinque Terre have been made one-way and fabulous beaches in Sardinia are keeping visitors out when they reach saturation point. In Venice, where visitor numbers often exceed the city’s 50,000 residents, authorities this year introduced a €5 ticket on busy days, a world first. Critics of such schemes argue they have not deterred visitors and the only real answer is to cap numbers.

But Venice has declined to limit the days apartments can be rented on Airbnb, a solution used by cities around the world, even though 6,000 of Venice’s 28,000 apartments, and rising, are rented out to tourists. And Giorgia Meloni’s right-wing government has proved reluctant to adopt a day limit elsewhere, even as mayors complain their historic city centres are being hollowed out by Airbnb, with 29 per cent of homes in central Florence now rented through the platform.

So how will tourist magnets sustain themselves, socially and environmentally? Mallorca will show the way. That is the message from the island that claims to have pioneered tourism since its beginnings. Spain’s oldest tourist board, the Fomento del Turismo de Mallorca, founded in 1905 and funded by hoteliers and businesses, is housed in an elegant 19th-century building. Eduardo Gamero, its president, said: “We have always adapted and survived.”

Portrait of Douglas, 8th Duke of Hamilton, on his Grand Tour with his physician Dr John Moore and the latter’s son John. The upper-class grand tourists of the 18th century sparked the trend for foreign travel

Portrait of Douglas, 8th Duke of Hamilton, on his Grand Tour with his physician Dr John Moore and the latter’s son John. The upper-class grand tourists of the 18th century sparked the trend for foreign travel

ALAMY

He pointed to the origins of tourism on the island when George Sand, “who was not liked as she wore trousers and travelled unmarried with Frederic Chopin”, published what Gamero called the “the first brochure on the island”, A Winter in Mallorca, in 1842.

Such travellers formed the basis of modern tourism, said Michael Hitchcock, emeritus professor in tourism at Goldsmiths. “It has elite origins starting with the Grand Tour, when wealthy tourists from northern Europe travelled south between the late 17th to the mid 19th centuries to enrich their knowledge of the Greco-Roman world and the Renaissance,” he said. Tourism remained for the rich “until the advent of Thomas Cook’s travel package in 1841 when he chartered a train with additional services added for a group of temperance travellers, paving the way for what became known as mass tourism”.

Gamero conceded that Mallorca’s infrastructure is under strain. “We need to have a balance between tourists and residents.” A source of optimism is the steps being taken by authorities. Mallorca’s government is cutting the number of tourist beds by 18,000, 4 per cent of the total. Marga Prohens, the conservative head of the Balearic Islands government, said last month she wants to bring about a transformation to the archipelago’s tourism by agreeing “a great social and political pact”, adding that the time has come to set limits and “ask ourselves where we are going and what we want to be”.

All eyes are on Antoni Rieri, an economist tasked with heading a steering committee that will advise the islands. “We are at an inflection point,” he told The Times. “We have to understand that tourism has social limits and lead a transition to a new more sophisticated tourism system. We can’t just focus, for example, on extending the season but must also look at measures such as increasing wages.” He added: “The Baleares are one of Europe’s wealthiest regions, but we have poverty, housing problems and water shortages. It will be slow but we must take the first steps before it is too late.”

The protest in Palma contained elements of “tourism-phobia”, with a few banners calling for “Guiris [pejorative for northern Europeans] to go home”. Barbero, the Sencelles activist, also said his group objected to the “horrific” behaviour of visitors in notorious Mallorca spots such as Magaluf. An example of dealing with the problem can be seen in Barcelona, which has just put up signs asking tourists to respect neighbours and their right to sleep.

A slightly subdued air hangs over the nightlife in Magaluf. The clientele of Coco Bongos and the Benny Hill diner drink quietly but solidly. Only at midnight do people begin to dance, sing, walk sideways into lampposts and cry. A youth, who insults a bouncer, is quickly restrained. “It gets quieter every year,” said Connor Murphy, who has worked in the resort for over a decade.

Waves of restrictions over the years have curbed the liberties of its revellers to be able to vomit, fight and fornicate freely in its streets and on its beach. Last month the regional government toughened a law to curb excessive drinking. People caught drinking outside authorised areas will be fined from €500 to €1,500. Shops cannot sell alcohol between 9.30pm and 8am. Juan Antonio Amengual, Magaluf’s mayor, points to the resort’s smart new hotels and says a “transition to making it a family resort is under way, although it will take years to complete”.

Robert Graves would not choose to live in Mallorca now — “there are too many people”, William, his son, said. But coves with translucent water, of the kind where the poet took his daily swim, can still be found empty or almost so — at this time of year at least.

Additional reporting by Adam Sage in Paris and Tom Kington in Rome

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