Are we reaching “peak tourism”?

Protests against tourism in Spain © Getty Images
Spanish activists want tourists to go home

The number of global tourists is booming as the world gets wealthier. Yet locals in many holiday hotspots resent the impact on their communities. Alex Rankine reports.

 How is the tourism industry doing?

It’s booming. Global tourist numbers have risen more or less continuously for the last six decades, despite ongoing geopolitical instability and terror threats. In 1950 there were 25 million international tourist arrivals globally. By 2015, that had risen to 1.19 billion. Tourism now accounts for about 10% of global GDP, and one in every 11 jobs worldwide. Europe is the global leader, accounting for half of the global tourism market and recording 607 million international arrivals in 2015, according to the World Tourism Organisation. That strong performance is not limited to the traditional Mediterranean sunspots: Deutsche Welle reports that overnight hotel stays in Germany are up this year, while more people made trips to the UK between April and June this year than in any other quarter since records began in 1980, partly due to sterling’s weakness.

What do the locals think?

They’re not so keen. There has been a surge in anti-tourist sentiment this summer, not least in Spain, which has seen anti-tourist marches in Mallorca and the Basque Country. In Barcelona left-wing activists have vandalised tourist infrastructure – in one notable incident, a tourist bus was stopped, its tyres slashed, and graffiti daubed all over it. Spain had a record 75.6 million visitors last year and is on course for another bumper year as tourists shun North Africa and Turkey for destinations considered safer (at least prior to the recent Barcelona attack). But the influx has generated widespread resentment that is no longer limited to the anti-capitalist left. A poll conducted in June by the city’s government showed that Barcelona’s residents now rank tourism as their biggest concern, ahead of unemployment or transport.

What’s the problem?

Most tourists on city breaks cluster in town centres, leading to overcrowding in locations such as Venice or Dubrovnik (made famous by the Game of Thrones TV series), and impinging on local residents. “Once you factor in the layout of a lot of these continental cities – old, and with a network of smaller streets – people start to get the sense that they’re being taken over,” says Duncan McCann of the New Economics Foundation in The Guardian. It’s not just small towns – closer to home, islanders on Skye have asked for help to cope with an upsurge in tourists clogging local roads. Another problem is the rise in property being used for short-term rentals via sites such as Airbnb. Many argue that the trend “hollows out” communities, depriving locals of housing and replacing them with a carousel of short-term tenants: almost 20% of Florence’s housing stock is thought to be on Airbnb.

Don’t these places rely on tourists?

Tourism is indispensable to many of the locations that have seen anti-tourist protests this summer. In the Balearic Islands – where the local government has now capped the number of tourist beds – tourism is thought to account for 50% of economic output, and nearly a third of the region’s jobs depend on visitors. Meanwhile, Portugal’s recent recovery, driven in large part by a tourist boom, shows just how crucial overseas visitors can be for a nation’s prosperity. Yet activists argue that unless tourism is carefully managed, locals can feel ripped-off. For example, Venice is a “miserably ill-run and threadbare city”, which sees little of the “vast profits” generated by the 20 million-plus visitors who tramp each year through St Mark’s Square, says Edward Lucas in The Times. The city “currently gains an average of only €3 in revenue from each tourist” (see below).

What’s the answer?

Several European countries, including France, Austria and Italy, apply tourist taxes to overnight stays, although most visitors are unaware of these charges, as they are included in accommodation bills. Yet overnight taxes are little help for places such as Venice and Dubrovnik, where most visitors are day-trippers, often arriving and departing on cruise ships. Some economists argue that the only way to control numbers in the most popular destinations is to tax entry into public spaces at peak times. This has long been a taboo suggestion, although some argue that it is potentially preferable to the default system of rationing access to a popular space via the ordeal of queuing.

Will global tourism stop growing?

That’s unlikely. Asia’s booming middle class is liable to send the number of international tourists to new highs: the number of Chinese outbound travellers hit 135 million last year, and between them they spent $261bn overseas – more than the entire GDP of Portugal. Most tourists from emerging economies stay close to home, but more are exploring the more distant temptations of America’s East and West coasts, or Europe’s great cities. So while tourist taxes, regulatory crackdowns on Airbnb providers and protests might thin numbers in some oversaturated locations, other places will happily take up the slack. Other than a shock that wipes out tourist demand – a major slump in emerging economies or an unprecedented tightening of visa rules, for example – it is difficult to see the trend going into reverse any time soon.

Is Venice in danger of sinking?

Venice might be known as La Serenissima, but her canals and piazzas are far from serene during the summer high season. Images of historic churches dwarfed by passing cruise ships, which damage the city’s delicate foundations and disgorge hundreds of tourists at a time into her narrow alleyways, have become symbols of Venice’s subjection to the whims of the tourism industry. With talk that the city’s World Heritage status could be under threat, the dwindling permanent population took to the streets in July to protest, but heritage group Italia Nostra says that authorities in the virtually bankrupt city have long offered “empty promises but no concrete proposals” to safeguard the Queen of the Adriatic for future generations.