After a year without travel, popular destinations are weighing up the cultural and social costs of actively encouraging so many visitors, says David Rudlin

David Rudlin_index

Last week saw the Academy of Urbanism’s annual congress, which this year was in Edinburgh. Except of course it wasn’t.

We were all sitting at home hearing about Edinburgh, following virtual walking tours (that were surprisingly effective) but not communing together as we did in those distant pre-pandemic days in places like Eindhoven, Aarhus and Cork.

Fed up with this now – you can’t experience cities virtually. Now that summer is here, I want to go back to being an urban tourist.

The theme of the congress, conceived pre-pandemic, was how cities are responding to intense pressures, particularly from tourism – not urban tourism of course, the other crass, alcohol-fuelled, culturally insensitive sort of mass tourism that has taken over many of our cities. It was a theme that has particular poignancy now that those cities have been deprived of the drug by covid-19 and realised how dependent they have become on the tourist pound, dollar and euro.

Paul Laurence, executive director of place at the City of Edinburgh council, described the way the Old Town used to be known as “a theme park without ticketing”. The streets were so full that locals could no longer go about their daily business; real shops were squeezed out by tourist tat and the housing market distorted by Airbnb.

This came to a head with the 2019 new year’s celebrations, when ticketing was finally introduced and residents found themselves having to apply for passes to access their own homes.

Not this year of course. The residents of Edinburgh, as well as those of Amsterdam, Barcelona and Lisbon (who also spoke at the congress) have been given their cities back. Post-lockdown, the shops and bars are open, albeit with some restrictions, but international tourists are largely absent. These cities are having a rare moment of peace.

As a resident of Barcelona’s Gothic Quarter told Time Magazine, “We saw scenes we hadn’t seen in a long time. The squares that are normally full of terrazas and tourists were occupied by kids playing, or families, or people sunbathing … Now we’re scared we’re going to lose that again.” Pre-pandemic, he complained, locals had been “relegated to a role of extras on a set”.

Edinburgh, a city of around half a million people, welcomed just under 4 million visitors in 2019, spending £1.32bon (up from £250m in 1990). The Edinburgh Tourist Action Group estimates that this supported 32,000 jobs, or about 12% of the workforce.

Is this huge growth in tourism a success story or not? Like many cities, Edinburgh has vigorously promoted itself as a tourist destination as part of its “growth” strategy. But has the success in attracting visitors been at the expense of local people? Indeed has it destroyed the very thing that those tourists had come to see? This might be called the Venice syndrome, and is something that the academy has seen before in places such as Temple Bar in Dublin.

Barcelona is the city where these issues are most sharply focused. Since hosting the 1992 Olympics it has been overrun by tourists with around 12m visitors a year. This is the city where tourist buses have been vandalised and graffiti proclaims that “tourists kill neighbourhoods”.

The city has had a licensing system for short-term lets like Airbnb and has recently gone further by banning all room rentals of less that 30 days in the central area. The Scottish government has also recently introduced a licensing system and allowed councils like Edinburgh to designate areas where planning permission will be required to use a property for short-term lets.

Barcelona has gone further and has used its year without tourists to plan for a better relationship between visitors and locals. It is experimenting with an app to alert visitors when places become too busy and to try and divert them to other areas.

It is spending €21m (£18m) buying up 5,323 commercial premises to rent to local-friendly businesses and holding a two-week festival for locals on La Rambla. It has also changed its advertising to target a better class of tourists more interested in culture and less in sunbathing and drinking.

Good luck with that, particularly in the face of an industry howling for the relaxation of travel restrictions and the reopening of the tourist trade. It is hard to see how places such as Edinburgh will not once more find themselves overrun by the visitor hoards that locals may hate but on which the city’s economy has become so dependent.