Richard Florida is a co-founder and editor at large of CityLab and a senior editor at The Atlantic. He is a university professor in the University of Toronto’s School of Cities and Rotman School of Management, and a distinguished fellow at New York University’s Schack Institute of Real Estate and visiting fellow at Florida International University.
A surge in tourism has led to a backlash in cities where residents feel overrun. How can these cities use tourism to their benefit?
With summer travel season now in high gear, a number of the world’s cities are witnessing a backlash against tourism. Venice, Barcelona, San Sebastián (on the northern coast of Spain), and the island of Mallorca have seen anti-tourism protests aimed at visitors and cruise ships, along with graffiti slogans like “Tourists go home” and “Tourists are terrorists.” Protests have also sprung up in Auckland, New Zealand over double-decker sightseeing buses that clog the city’s streets. Some call this influx of visitors and the pressures it brings “over-tourism.”
The past decade or so has seen a surge in tourism, driven by a rising middle class across the world, especially in large emerging economies like China. Tourism has also become more affordable and accessible, with cheaper airfares and accommodations made possible through online booking services such as Airbnb. International tourism rose from fewer than 300 million trips in 1980 to some 500 million in 1995, before exploding to 1.3 billion trips in 2017—a number that’s expected to rise to 1.8 billion in 2030.
Much of this growth has been driven by China. In 2017, Chinese tourists made about 130 million trips abroad—a big jump from a decade ago. China also accounts for an estimated 80 percent of the growth in tourism spending over the past 10 or so years.
Tourism is highly concentrated in a handful of destination cities around the world. Today, roughly half (46 percent) of all global tourism is concentrated in the top 100 cities, where tourism grew almost 25 percent faster than the worldwide rate. The world’s leading hotspots include Hong Kong, Bangkok, London, Singapore, Paris, Dubai, Istanbul, and New York. In 2016, New York City hosted more than 60 million tourists, up from 35 million in 2002. Tourism in London has also grown by 20 percent over the past several years, while tourism in Berlin more than doubled from 2005 (15 million) to 2016 (31 million).
City governments in some of these hotspots are trying to cope with so-called over-tourism. Venice and Dubrovnik have sought to restrict cruise ships. Amsterdam has tried to curtail tourist shops selling over-priced souvenirs and waffles. Reykjavik is reigning in the indecent behavior of tourists who pour in on cheap flights. Milan has temporarily banned food trucks and selfie sticks in one of its most-frequented neighborhoods. And Rome has prohibited people from eating or cavorting in public fountains, restricted drinking on the streets at night, and sought to limit tourists’ access to popular sites like the Trevi Fountain.
Other cities have tried to use tourist revenues to solve broader problems in a more inclusive fashion, as my colleagues Steven Pedigo and Aria Bendix at the NYU Urban Lab have pointed out. An estimated 22 countries have imposed some form of tourism tax. Historic Alexandria, Virginia, has raised local taxes on restaurant meals by 1 percent and is using the additional revenue for affordable housing. But there are ways to contend with over-tourism that avoid taxation: These include boosting public-private partnerships, improving mobility through new technology, and encouraging tourism operators to pay their workers higher wages.
Many cities have also cracked down on Airbnb, which has been found to increase rents by taking housing off the local market. Still, Airbnb is not as massive a threat as cities would like to believe. In the U.S., hotel occupancy saw its best year ever in 2017, despite the strong presence of online booking services. Rather than eliminate these services altogether, cities must find ways to regulate illegal and unlicensed Airbnb units. This can be accomplished through six-month-minimum leases in certain buildings or neighborhoods, or tracking short-term rental licenses, as is currently happening in Barcelona.
In truth, scapegoating tourism deflects attention away from the realities of the new urban crisis. Restricting the number of tourists or tourism-related activities will do little to solve the root problem of inequality. And on the most basic level, tourism and hospitality are a huge source of low-skill, port-of-entry jobs. Tourism accounts for roughly 10 percent of the world’s economic output. In many smaller and struggling places, it brings badly needed resources. This financial stimulus often comes in the form of hard currency, which can help alleviate distressed economic conditions.
Over the past few decades, the ascent of cities has brought more people—locals and tourists—back to urban centers and downtowns. This has been met by woefully inadequate housing development and extreme NIMBYism that further limits development in historic areas. Even government spending on vital infrastructure and public goods has failed to keep up with the basic needs of urban residents. Cities’ current struggle over tourism is not an isolated issue, but part of a broader set of problems that accompany the increasing attractiveness of cities.
Rather than limit tourism, cities must build more inclusive and sustainable places for residents, workers, and visitors alike. This means overcoming NIMBYism and land-use restrictions, constructing more affordable housing, regulating services like Airbnb, and investing in transit that everyone can use. Tourism revenues can also help fund necessary public goods such as bike lanes and parks.
Although the tourism industry is susceptible to the same divisions that plague our cities, it can be a vehicle for change. By recommitting to a fairer and more inclusive urbanism, cities can support a steady stream of tourist activity—while avoiding a fiercer backlash.