Growing up in Canterbury — just 40 miles from France — I’m no stranger to inbound tourism. My father would often return from town, bemoaning the busloads of French school trips that left in their wake a trail of stink bombs, selfie sticks and silly string, purchased from market stalls set up specifically to service their demographic. My dad assured me that it was “just like the bazaar in Cairo,” despite having never visited Egypt.
But there’s been more than enough reciprocity, with Kentish kids wreaking havoc in France, and the wholesale export of British pubs (and punters alike) spewing live Premier League analysis and warm bitter onto the Costa Brava. Tourists have irritated locals since the birth of travel.
At a time, though, when Airbnb is being scrutinised in some cities — because of fears it’s causing housing shortages and rent hikes — anti-tourism sentiments are being voiced more strongly than ever in some parts of Europe.
In July, a busload of tourists was targeted at FC Barcelona’s Camp Nou stadium by extremist pro-Catalan independence group, Arran. They slashed the vehicle’s tyres and spray painted ‘Tourism kills neighbourhoods’ across the windscreen, terrifying passengers.
Along with a sustained graffiti campaign, putting superglue in the locks of tour company buildings and reportedly pelting tourists with eggs, members of the group have since filmed themselves slashing the tyres of a tourist cycle-hire scheme in the city, plastering rental cars with anti-tourism stickers and setting off smoke flares in a Palma restaurant.
A spokesperson for Arran justified the group’s actions to the BBC by stating: “Today’s model of tourism expels people from their neighbourhoods and harms the environment.”
Spain received a record 75.6 million visitors last year and Barcelona has exploded as a city break destination. Many of Barcelona’s residents have been protesting about the mass-tourism flooding the city, which they say has priced locals out of housing and created an economy that forces residents into low-wage jobs in tourist service industries.
Mayor of Barcelona, Ada Colau, agrees; she’s put a freeze on new hotel licences and launched a crackdown on unregulated holiday apartments. After Arran’s bus attack though, she insisted, “Protesting against tourism should never mean intimidating people.”
Manel Casals, director general of the Barcelona hoteliers association, insists putting a freeze on hotels won’t help: “Of the 32 million people that visited Barcelona last year, only eight million stayed in hotels. Around 23 million were day-trippers. You’re not going to regulate tourism by limiting the number of beds.”
Cruise ship passengers have also been the targets of protests in popular port stops like Venice and Dubrovnik. With a dwindling permanent population of just 55,000 —the same number as the amount of visitors it receives every day — Venice residents have been blockading the docks on and off for years. Now Dubrovnik, a key Game of Thrones filming location, is seeing a similar backlash. The council has limited visitor numbers and installed security cameras in the Old Town to monitor crowding.
Meanwhile, church steps are being hosed down in Florence to discourage picnicking and, in a bid to curb littering and antisocial behaviour, Milan has banned food trucks, and even cracked down on selfie sticks. So at least something good has come out of this furore.
How can the issue be resolved? Economies need tourism, right?
The World Tourism Organisation (UNWTO) says the answer doesn’t lie in limiting tourist arrivals. Instead it recommends a number of proven methods for managing overcrowding, like diversifying tourist activities, working to reduce seasonality and encouraging tourists to explore areas beyond the main sights.
Should I be concerned about being targeted?
As usual, check the FCO website for advice before travel. It usually errs very much on the side of caution, so you’ll be informed of anything you might conceivably need worry about. The usual sensible precautions apply, such as avoiding demonstrations.
I’m a protestor — where can I stock up on silly string and stink bombs?
In Canterbury or Cairo, according to my dad.
Published in the November 2017 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)