Thursday, July 18, 2024

Locals bear the brunt of mass tourism in southern Europe

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Many tourist spots in Europe are expecting record numbers this summer. And locals are increasingly on edge. They want lower rents and a fairer distribution of resources.

Venice has long suffered from mass tourism (Sebastian Kahnert/dpa/picture alliance )

Several European cities particularly popular with tourists have been witnessing protests by local residents. In Venice, some protesters even squatted in apartments in recent years. They say their city is being plagued by tourism, which has left few affordable homes for locals.

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About 49,000 people live in Venice’s historic city center. According to various estimates, more than 20 million tourists visit the city each year. And so, the daily lives of some provide the backdrop for the vacation memories of others.

Europe is the continent that attracts the most international tourists. And Venice is not the only European city suffering from the impact of mass tourism. There have been an increasing amount of reports on protests against tourism in Barcelona and other Spanish cities. And in the Portuguese capital Lisbon, its Czech counterpart Prague, as well as the Dutch city of Amsterdam, reports of tensions between visitors and locals have been piling up.

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In each city, the reasons cited for these mounting tensions are similar: rising rents, astronomical real estate prices, and the question of who is allowed to use which resources.

Revenue streams from tourism often insufficient

Tourism is often the number one source of income for cities and regions across Europe. According to estimates by the European Union (EU), tourism accounts for about 10% of the bloc’s gross domestic product (GDP), with some 12.3 million people employed in the sector.

However, “these are abstract figures,” said Sebastian Zenker, an expert for tourism and marketing at the Copenhagen Business School. He explained that local residents gained nothing from this revenue if rents rose along with it, if properties became unaffordable, or if restaurants charged prices only tourists could afford. To curb this, he said, locals needed to have a sense that things were balanced.

He said that although many people did earn some income from tourism, only a few were able to make good money, let alone a living, as most wages were too low.

In Portugal, the minimum wage is €4.85 ($5.25) per hour. In Spain, it is €6.87. Italy does not have a minimum wage at all.

Where does the money go?

Where does all the money go that travelers to Mediterranean countries spend? According to Paul Peeters, who researches sustainable tourism and transport at Breda University of Applied Sciences in the Netherlands, a large part of it goes to airlines, major hotel chains, international companies, and the cruise industry.

When it comes to calculating tourism cash flows, the mode of transportation selected can prove a decisive factor. People on cruises usually sleep and eat aboard. People who buy vacation packages and book flights, hotels and meals through large providers rarely spend much money on the ground.

However, they do contribute to pollution and consume valuable resources such as water, thereby adding to the burden on locals, which can exacerbate the feeling of inequality and fuel tensions between visitors and locals.

“All actors are aware that they want tourism,” Zenker said. “But the question is, ‘How?’, and, ‘What kind?'”

Demarketing, rules and bans

In many places, politicians have started to take action. In Amsterdam, the construction of new hotels has been banned, for example. The city has also tried to get a handle on party and drug tourism with targeted demarketing campaigns — strategies which reduce the demand for a certain product among specific target groups.

In Lisbon and Palma de Mallorca, the rental market has long outpaced the residents’ needs and economic realities. Authorities are now attempting to curb this development. For example, new licenses for renting out property via online platforms such as Airbnb are no longer being issued. Palma is also imposing time limits on renting out properties to tourists.

Barcelona is taking a more drastic approach: The Catalan city has announced that licenses for renting out around 10,000 holiday flats will expire in 2028. The idea is to take some pressure off the housing market in a city where rents have risen by more than 60% in the past 10 years.

Cruise ships are also facing more restrictions and higher fees. Large ships have not been allowed to dock in Venice’s center since 2021, and Amsterdam is planning to introduce similar restrictions by 2026. This is meant to not only limit the number of tourists who enter the city, but also reduce air pollution.

Promotion of ‘high-quality’ tourism

Like Amsterdam, Mallorca is also trying to shake off its image of being a party destination. Overall, the island wants to attract fewer tourists, but it prefers those who are willing to spend money. But is the promotion of so-called “high-quality tourism” really the solution?

No, says Macia Blázquez-Salom, a geography professor and activist who lives in Palma de Mallorca. She told DW that focusing on luxury tourism would just exacerbate inequalities.

“Party and beach resort tourism is limited to specific locations, it basically works like a factory,” she explained. That meant that the direct impact of these toursits was limited to a small part of the municipalities on the island.

She said that better-off tourists had higher expectations, consumed more water, tended to take more short trips, and could also buy property if necessary. She explained that this boosted “gentrification and real estate speculation,” which had a much more direct impact on the lives of local residents.

Growth is no longer an option for locals

Much of the tourism sector continues to think only in terms of growth. Record numbers of visitors are welcomed to tourism hotspots every year. But for many locals in Barcelona, Venice and Palma, more growth is no longer an option. What can be done?

Peeters said that one approach would be to keep the number of tourists at a level that cities and municipalities could still cope with. He said that ecological and social factors should play a central role in this.

But this would require corresponding agreements with airlines and port authorities, whose financial models are mostly geared toward overcapacity, and thus further growth.

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