In Depth

European tourism at a tipping point

In Depth: What's the solution to the tourism backlash sweeping across Europe?

With the mercury rising across Europe thanks to a heatwave nicknamed "Lucifer", anger over mass tourism has reached boiling point this summer.

"Why call it tourism season if we can't kill them?" demanded one protester in Spain, holding aloft a sign written in English.

From the crowded stalls of Barcelona's famous food market La Boqueria to the cruise ships that disgorge thousands of passengers daily on St Mark's Square in Venice, large-scale tourism is attracting public opposition.

Spain, in particular, has been a hotbed of anti-tourism sentiment. In Barcelona, tensions have been rising for years over the unrestricted surge in visitors and the impact of so-called "disruptors" such as Airbnb on the local housing market. They took a nasty turn this summer when Arran, the youth wing of the radical CUP party, were filmed slashing the tyres of rental bicycles and a tour bus.

"Today's model of tourism expels people from their neighbourhoods and harms the environment," a spokesperson for the group said.

There have also been protests in San Sebastian where an anti-tourism march on 17 August will coincide with Semana Grande, a festival of Basque culture.

On the Balearic islands of Ibiza and Majorca, a new law by the islands' left-wing coalition government introduces a cap of 623,624 beds that can be used for tourists. The islands plan to cut that by 120,000 over the next few years.

The laws are "designed to mollify residents who complain that mass tourism is driving up rental prices and making life a misery," says The Times

In Venice last month, residents organised a protest through the main tourist areas behind a banner that read: "My future is Venice." The city's population has fallen from about 175,000 in the years after World War II to 55,000 today.

"Around 2,000 people leave each year," one of the protest's organisers told The Guardian. "If we go on this way, in a few years' time Venice will only be populated by tourists. This would be a social, anthropological and historical disaster." 

The UK is not immune to such protests. Residents on Scotland's Isle of Skye complain that local infrastructure cannot cope with the number of summer visitors.

"Skye is buckling under the weight of increased tourism this year," said one resident

What can be done about it?

The demonstrations have led to calls for restrictions on mass tourism.

"When places from the Mediterranean to the Isle of Skye all begin complaining more or less simultaneously about the sheer pressure of tourist numbers, as has happened this August, it feels as if the always uneasy balance between the visited and the visitors has gone beyond a tipping point," says The Guardian's Martin Kettle. 

Yet as "tourism-phobia" becomes more of a feature, the World Tourism Organisation (UNWTO) has defended the sector, calling on local authorities to do more to manage growth in a sustainable manner.

Speaking to The Guardian, secretary general Taleb Rifai said the rise in anti-tourist sentiment is "a very serious situation that needs to be addressed in a serious way".

If managed correctly, he added, tourism can be the "best ally" for conservation, preservation and the community.

"When it is well managed, tourism provides an incredible economic boost to host communities," says Brian Mullis, Founder of Sustainable Travel International

Restrictions are inevitable, Mullis adds. Italy's Cinque Terre, Utah's Zion National Park and Peru's Machu Picchu are already limiting the annual number of visitors. Bhutan, on the Himalayas' eastern edge, and Venice now charge visitor taxes and fees, while Thailand's Koh Tachai island in the Similan National Park prohibits visits altogether. 

Are the days of unrestricted mass tourism over?

There are issues with imposing restrictions on tourist hotspots.

"The biggest, in a global sense, is the rise of Chinese tourism," says Kettle. Chinese residents have only been allowed to travel outside of their own country for the last 20 years, so "why should Chinese people be denied the rewards of travel?"

More broadly, tourism "opens the mind to other cultures, enriching the human experience and insuring against the prejudices of ignorance," says The Times

Governments have the power to alleviate pressures on residents and change public opinion, the paper adds, including hypothecating a tourist tax and funneling the revenue into initiatives that help locals.

There does need to be a change in thinking however, says Elizabeth Becker, author of Overbooked: The Exploding Business of Travel and Tourism

"Most governments still measure tourism success simply by the number of visitors," she says.

"But France, Bhutan, Costa Rica and Canada are among the few countries with governments willing to co-ordinate policies of sustainable tourism and they haven't suffered."

Change must come on a personal level too, says Kettle. "We have to re-examine the idea that we enjoy an unfettered liberty to travel at will or for pleasure," he writes.

"We may not be an infestation yet. But we are a problem. Travel can narrow the mind too."


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