Tourists grin for selfies in front of the gates of Auschwitz. They dive into the Trevi fountain in Rome. One man carved his name and his girlfriend’s — “Ivan + Hayley 23” — into the Roman Colosseum’s 2,000-year-old brick wall. A Russian influencer was deported from Bali with her husband after posting a nude picture of herself in front of a sacred 700-year-old banyan tree. In Amsterdam, stag parties wearing penis suits lie vomiting in gutters. All of them are helping change the climate, contributing to the current heatwave now afflicting much of southern Europe: tourist transportation causes about 5 per cent of global emissions, and rising.
Overtourism was becoming an issue in the last years before the pandemic. Now that international travel is reviving unexpectedly fast, it’s an issue again from Venice to Fiji — the popular Pacific destination where the word “overtourism” is googled far more than anywhere else on Earth.
Everyone complains about tourists. But now, possibly for the first time ever, a few European cities — with Amsterdam leading the pack — have begun doing something about them. The brief experience of tourist-free tranquillity in these places during lockdown is helping inspire change. Should cities fly in the face of capitalism, reverse 50 years of economic history (or centuries, in the case of Venice) and try to repel tourists?
The official number of international tourist arrivals doubled from 1998 through 2019, to 2.4bn a year. Typically, in each destination, the rise was cheered on by the local tourist industry and state-funded tourism marketing outfit. Most residents just watched it happen.
The increase was particularly acute in a few European cities. From the 1990s, as most cities got nicer and safer, and low-cost flights and international trains mushroomed, short trips to these places became the norm.
Many of us who now bemoan overtourism have been part of the problem. I grew up in the Netherlands, and in the 1990s I took the English football team I played for on two tours to Amsterdam. I learnt that my teammates conceived of “abroad” as a place where the stultifying rules of Britain at the time didn’t apply.
Number of tourists who stayed in hotels in Barcelona in 2019 — up from 1.7mn in 1990
To use a phrase invented by an Amsterdam city councillor decades later, they went to the Netherlands for a “moral holiday”. In Amsterdam you could have beers for breakfast! Pot was legal! There was a red-light district with women in bikinis sitting by windows, beckoning you in!
My teammates trudged around the district every day, smuggled back hardcore magazines, and then complained that Amsterdam was “scuzzy”.
Year-round urban tourism grew faster than traditional “sun and beach” or “touring” holidays, writes Kerstin Bock of the Free University Berlin. In Barcelona, to cite an extreme case, the number of tourists staying in hotels jumped from 1.7mn in 1990 to 9.5mn in 2019 — a number that excludes the city’s Airbnbs, some of them entire buildings that have been removed from the local housing market and essentially offshored.
Barcelona is one of several places that risk becoming a Venice: a former city that turned into a museum-cum-fun park. Venice now has around as many beds for visitors as for inhabitants: about 49,000 each. And the thinning ranks of residents tend to be older people who moved in decades ago when the city was still affordable.
More ominously for cities, official tourist totals are probably understatements. In particular, they rarely capture visitors who stay with friends or family, or swap homes, or just drive in for the day and don’t stay overnight. As Paris’s former deputy mayor, Jean-Louis Missika, puts it: “Enormous numbers of foreigners come to France and fly below the radar.”
A paper by Jacques Lévy of the École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne and others, using phone data, finds a “big surprise”: on average, there were about 5mn customers of non-French phone operators in France in 2022-23, compared with just under 2mn foreign visitors measured by “official data”. In some neighbourhoods of Paris, the paper says, the number of foreign visitors per sq km exceeded 100,000. For comparison: Paris’s 20,000 inhabitants per sq km already make it Europe’s densest city. Here’s a painful paradox of urban tourism: the cities that attract most visitors are cramped, ancient places that lack space even for residents. You don’t get much tourism in the Houston exurbs.
European frustrations with tourists are spilling over. My own apartment building in Paris is plastered with choleric signs in dodgy English saying, “THE CARETAKER OF THIS BUILDING IS NOT AUTHORIZED TO DELIVER OR RECEIVE ANY KEYS OR PARCELS INTENDED TO SHORT TERM TENANTS.” One afternoon, sitting at home, I was disturbed by an American woman broadcasting her loud conversation on speakerphone from the balcony of the next flat. In overpopulated Paris, this is a neighbourly no-no. When I asked her to stop, she looked surprised: she had discovered that her Instagram picture was inhabited.
At times, European anti-tourist rhetoric echoes European anti-immigration rhetoric. A common line is, “We are being swamped by misbehaving invaders who refuse to adapt to our superior culture.” In truth, of course, tourists don’t have a monopoly on misbehaviour. They probably behave worse on average in places branded with an image of “moral holiday”, like Amsterdam and Bali, and better in Paris with its intimidating etiquette.
But it’s true that most tourists struggle to merge seamlessly into the city. Last Sunday morning I cycled around some of Paris’s tourist spots, starting with Notre-Dame. Tourists probably come to ancient sites partly for the reassurance of seeing that a few human creations survive the centuries. So they fly in from around the world, sit themselves in the wooden spectators’ tribune now facing Notre-Dame, and look at the cathedral, only to realise, almost instantly, that they don’t know how to see it.
What should they be looking at? For anyone who wasn’t raised on Catholic iconography or trained in medieval art, it’s hard to know. They could come with a tour guide — but the guides’ microphones and retinue of pavement-blocking crowds infuriate locals. Also, most tourists are travelling with loved ones, being bombarded with confusing languages and behavioural codes, and trying to relax. And so, after a few seconds, people give up, find their phone, take a selfie and post it online.
Social media has worsened an ancient tourist tendency to treat the place you are visiting as a backdrop. People visit a city, in spirit, with their online followers. Any locals encountered can seem like extras on a stage-set, there to add colour to pictures or act as auxiliary tourist information officers.
I, too, only glanced at Notre-Dame. Then I cycled along the Seine to the Pont des Arts, the bridge whose sides are now covered with unsightly glass panels to stop tourists attaching “love locks” to its sides.
From there, I turned right into the Louvre, and watched the queues. On my last pre-pandemic visit to the museum, I had walked into the room with the “Mona Lisa”, only to hit a ruck of a couple of hundred people taking photographs. Somewhere in the distance, obscured by phones, was a small portrait of a woman. I later gave up on Parisian museums, until the pandemic stopped tourism. During a respite between lockdowns, I visited the Louvre and the Musée d’Orsay, and enjoyed the great art. I may never go there again.
The downsides of tourism are now widely understood. The question is: what can be done about it? Deliberately reducing tourism would be a brave step, even if it were feasible in a world with billions of emerging consumers. The tourism industry directly accounts for about 4 per cent of European gross domestic product, rising to 10 per cent if you take account of its links with other economic sectors, says the European Parliament. Tourism provides jobs that cannot be offshored. Visitors help fund the upkeep of monuments and museums. And some cities, especially in southern Europe, have little to flog but their heritage. When tourists disappeared during the pandemic, places such as Florence and Barcelona realised uneasily how few alternatives they had.
There are certain obvious things cities could do to control — and better monetise — the influx. One is raising tourist taxes, sometimes by a lot. After all, tourists are by definition rich enough to afford the luxury of staying the night in another city. They also use its taxpayer-funded resources.
Paris imposes a tax of just €5 a night for visitors staying in hotels classified as “palaces”, where the room rate might be over €2,000; the tax is €2.88 for a four-star, and so on. “It’s an absolutely ridiculous amount,” snorts Missika. Many cities, including London, often under pressure from hoteliers, don’t even charge tourist taxes. Manchester recently became the first British city to impose one: £1 a night. That’s a far cry from Bhutan, where the initial daily tourist tax is $200.
Many destinations now plan to focus on what they call “quality tourists”, usually a euphemism for high-spending rich people. The word “quality” is debatable. An East German friend of mine spent his teenage years behind the Berlin Wall reading about ancient Greece. He imagined that one day, when he was retired, and enjoyed the freer travel available to East German pensioners, he would visit the revered sites. Suddenly, when he was 20, the Wall fell. The next summer, penniless, he filled his backpack with canned food, and made his pilgrimage to Greece. I reckon he was a quality tourist. In any case, the great human creations surely belong to humanity, not just to the place where they happen to have been left behind.
Still, it’s easy to identify and try to exclude groups who don’t meet any definition of “quality tourists”: drunken stag parties, or cruise-ship passengers who pack a city’s streets for a few hours, spending almost nothing, then return to port to eat onboard, while their ship fouls the city’s air. Venice in 2021 banned cruise ships from its lagoon and other cities are imposing restrictions.
Another trend is for cities to encourage the “spreading” of tourists. Often this entails limiting the growth of hotels and Airbnbs in the overvisited downtown, while permitting them in suburbs and nearby towns. In theory this can work, a little. Tourists staying in a Parisian suburb might at least have breakfast and dinner nearby, boosting the local economy. They might come across undiscovered jewels: many places remain under-touristed.
But there are problems with spreading. One is that most tourists want to see the tourist attractions. Wherever you put them, they’ll find their way to the Louvre. And the problem can be exacerbated when spreading does work: if more tourists start visiting the Parisian outskirts, most of them will also make time for the Louvre. Independent Dutch tourism strategist Isabel Mosk remarks: “I think spreading is just an excuse to keep growing.”
There’s a more radical solution to overtourism: degrowth. When it comes to turning away visitors, one European city leads the way: Amsterdam.
It’s well placed to do so. From 1995 through 2019 Amsterdam’s regional economy grew by 132 per cent. Relatively little of that came from tourism: the drivers of growth were information, communication (including IT), financial and business services. Today, as the boom continues, local companies have a hard enough time finding staff even without an overstimulated tourism sector.
Many restaurants, cannabis cafés and brothels already have to import migrant workers. The so-called “canal belt” of central Amsterdam, where most of the tourist destinations are, is now inhabited mostly by rich people who don’t like having their nights disturbed by tourists on “beer bikes”. The residents also want other retail options than the array of visitor-oriented “Nutella shops”. (The Italian brand has no obvious Dutch connection, but smearing it on waffles has somehow become a new Amsterdam tourist tradition.)
Number of tourists staying in hotels in Amsterdam in 2019 — not including Airbnbs
The city has tried to spread tourists away. Realising that many visitors will come only to destinations branded “Amsterdam”, the authorities gave the medieval castle in the nearby town of Muiden the English name “Amsterdam Castle Muiderslot”, while the beach at Zandvoort became “Amsterdam Beach”. More hotels (often with “Amsterdam” in their names) have opened in unglamorous nearby towns. But spreading hasn’t reduced tourism to the city. In 2010 Amsterdam welcomed (if that’s the word) 5.3mn hotel visitors. By 2019 there were 9.2mn, plus millions more staying in Airbnbs.
In 2021, the city council set a maximum target of 20mn visitors a year. But that number is already forecast to be exceeded this year, even though Chinese tourists, in particular, are only just emerging from pandemic restrictions. If nothing is done, there will probably be more visitors in 2024.
And so Amsterdam is swinging into action. The upmarket city wants to shed its outdated downmarket image, rebranding itself as a cultural destination. In the red-light district, where certain hotspots are visited by 900,000 pedestrians a week, the authorities have shuttered hundreds of sex-workers’ windows, and imposed modestly earlier closing times on cafés and brothels (3am for the latter, instead of 6am). Outdoor pot-smoking has been banned in the city centre. In a turnaround that few saw coming a decade ago, it’s now probably easier to buy legal weed in New York than in Amsterdam. The city also hopes to convert some hotels into homes and offices.
There’s only so much a city by itself can do to repel tourists, but the Dutch state is now co-operating too. This month it won a court battle to cut the number of flights at Schiphol airport on environmental grounds. A tourist who takes the train to Amsterdam from Cologne might be “sustainable”; one who jets in from California is not.
The state even seems to be getting out of the tourist promotion business. The Netherlands’ official international logo, which used to be a tulip beside the user-friendly if inaccurate word “Holland” (in fact, Holland is just the western bit of the country) was changed in 2019 to a more sober “NL Netherlands”, with only the wavy “L” alluding to the ditched tulip. “A traditional tulip symbol is too much connected to tourism and souvenirs”, explained one of the logo’s designers.
Anyone doubting Amsterdam’s desire to change should check out the city’s new ad campaign, “Stay Away”, initially aimed at young British males like my football teammates of long ago. A member of the target demographic who googles a term like “stag party Amsterdam” might find himself watching a video of a drunken man being arrested, above the strapline, “So coming to Amsterdam for a messy night? Stay away.”
A “Stay Away” campaign is surely a first in the history of tourist marketing. It could prove the start of a trend.
Simon Kuper is an FT columnist
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