Tourism can bring many benefits to a local community. Employment opportunities, funding for public works and preservation of heritage sights just to name a few. As the volume of tourism increases however, so does the pressure on local residents. Tourism is defined as “the commercial organization and operation of holidays and visits to places of interest”. Mass tourism is the same, but involves much larger volumes of people.
Thomas Cook was the first to see the potential of tourism with the opening of a local railway link. He charged 500 people 1 shilling for a round trip to a Teetotal rally in nearby Loughborough and the rest is history. With the development of improved roads, better rail links and larger passenger ships tourism flourished. Exotic destinations such as Venice, Paris and London were suddenly within reach. Competition, and an increase in capacity, reduced overall travel costs making it more accessible to a larger percentage of the population.
Fast forward to the present day. Headlines are filled with stories like “Eiffel Tower set to reopen after strike over queues” or “Venetians flee toxic tourists”. So what went wrong? Sometimes, as is the case in Barcelona, destinations can be the victim of their own success. In an effort to curb rising unemployment, the government embarked on a plan of urban development and promotion culminating in the 1992 Olympics. Today, even though the government is loath to kill the “golden goose” it recognizes mass tourism is a double edged sword. Indeed in Barcelona (as with other tourist hot spots), local shops that have been serving residents for a lifetime have been forced to make way for pricey, tourist-oriented emporiums. While regulators battle to introduce new legislation to kerb this trend, its unlikely that the damage of the past 20 years can be undone.
The rise in popularity of short term rentals, made popular through Airbnb, has only added to the problem. This unregulated industry encourages short term tenants, reducing longer term property availability and thus pushing up permanent rentals prices. Residents are forced to move to the outskirts or capitalise by selling to investors which perpetuates the cycle. Once you lose the core of the community – its essence, the whole cultural soul is destroyed. Venice was recently described as ” a theme park by day and a ghost town by night“. Its easy to see why. On a recent visit, I noticed people preferring to eat at a chain restaurant rather than one of the (dwindling) local cafes. Agusti Colom, chief of tourism for the Barcelona municipal government sums this up by saying “if the city becomes over-saturated and homogeneous, it could lose the charm that drew visitors in the first place”.
So, what can we do? The answer is to set a high bar for sustainable tourism and service delivery. Encourage local participation in the planning and delivery of these services (i.e. licence only local owner/operators). Choose smaller “Eco certified” tour operators that offer a more diverse range of destinations with limited sized groups.
Maintaining a balance is in everyone’s interest, but agreeing on how to do that is sometimes easier said than done.
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