HomeCoronavirusHow coronavirus is reshaping Europe's tourism hotspots

How coronavirus is reshaping Europe’s tourism hotspots

Barely a year ago the graffiti on the walls of Barcelona read Tourists Go Home. Now that they have gone, the city – along with others that are heavily dependent on the tourist trade – fears an economic meltdown and is hastily drawing up plans to lure visitors back while placating tourist-weary residents.

Trade associations predict at least 15% of businesses and one in four restaurants in Barcelona city centre will close permanently as a result of coronavirus and the outlook is similarly grim in other urban tourist destinations, with tens of thousands of jobs at risk.

But Covid-19 has got the mayors of some of Europe’s most heavily visited cities, academics and urban scholars all singing the same tune: the collapse of the travel industry caused by the virus offers a unique opportunity for cities plagued by mass tourism to rethink their business model.

Charles Bridge in Prague
Charles bridge in Prague

Barbora Hrubá, of the Prague tourist agency, said the Czech capital wants a “different type of visitor”. Xavier Marcé, the Barcelona councillor responsible for tourism, said: “I don’t want more tourists, I want more visitors.” “We’re a city in crisis and are trying to do something different,” said Paola Mar, his counterpart in Venice.

“We want to have a sustainable visitor economy that doesn’t harm the liveability of our city,” said Heleen Jansen, corporate communications coordinator at amsterdam&partners, a non-profit organisation that advises Amsterdam on how to market itself.

However, good intentions are one thing, concrete proposals another. According to Janet Sanz, Barcelona’s deputy mayor, cities that have grown dependent on tourism are paying the price for having a monocultural economy and now the challenge is to diversify.

Easier said than done with the scale of tourism in these cities. Barcelona, which has a population of 1.6 million, received 30 million visitors in 2019; Venice, 270,000 residents, 25 million visitors; Amsterdam, population 873,000, welcomed 19 million tourists.

In Venice, mass tourism has in recent years been seen as a threat to the city’s survival, but now the debate has switched to how it will pull through with fewer visitors.

St Mark’s Square in Venice
St Mark’s Square in Venice

While tourists have been trickling back to the city since the coronavirus lockdown was eased, the majority travelling by car from Austria, Germany, France and Belgium, many hotels remain closed and those that are open are only about 30% full.

“This is a time for reflection,” said Mar. While the city is yet to devise any bold measures to manage tourism better in the future, some smaller changes are afoot.

“Owners of property that was rented to tourists have signed an agreement with the council and Venice’s universities to now rent to students,” said Mar. “It’s a good sign.”

Other cities, including Amsterdam, Barcelona and Lisbon, have taken steps to curb the Airbnb phenomenon that has pushed up rents and driven residents out.

Jaime Palomera, spokesman for Barcelona’s Tenants’ Union, wants the thousands of tourist apartment licences that were granted in perpetuity by the Catalan government in 2011 to be revoked. He also says the government should legislate against letting single rooms to tourists, a loophole that allows landlords to get around the law banning renting out entire apartments.

As in Barcelona, much of Venetians’ antipathy towards tourists has focused on the giant cruise ships. But neither city has jurisdiction over the port and any form of control will have to come from central government.

“We no longer live in fear of the monsters crashing,” said Matteo Secchi, who leads the activist group, Venessia. “But I feel for the staff at the cruise ship terminal who are now at home. We are against big ships and have always said we need a solution, but the workers must be protected.”

The waters off St Mark’s Square in Venice
The waters off of San Marco square in Venice

With tens of thousands of jobs at stake, the headache for cities is how to rethink tourism without causing mass unemployment.

“There are people who think that the city is magnificent the way it is, without tourists,” Marcé said. “But they may change their view when the state stops paying 80% of their salary in September and unemployment goes up to 18%.”

Marcé believes it is less a question of numbers than of distribution. He wants to encourage tourists to visit other parts of the city and not just the traditional sites. This is a view shared by Amsterdam in its six-point post-Covid-19 plan, although it concedes that it is difficult to discourage visitors from congregating at iconic sites.

“Thirty million visitors managed the way they were up until the beginning of this year is not sustainable,” Marcé said. “The same number with different interests dispersed to different areas may not be such a big problem.”

Octavi Bono, the director general of tourism for the Catalan government, agrees. “We don’t want more or less tourism, we want better tourism with a better distribution of tourists by season and by location. We are continuing with an agreed marketing plan.”

Las Ramblas in Barcelona
Las Ramblas in Barcelona

Agreed by whom? asks Pere Mariné, spokesman for Barcelona’s federation of residents’ associations. “He says that because they’re thinking about businessmen, not citizens.”

“As for Marcé’s idea of decentralisation, I’m not opposed to it, but that entails promoting the city in a different way, and the plans they’ve approved recently point to more of the same, mass tourism.”

Marcé says the problem is that the Catalan coast is crowded with tourists who want to spend a day in Barcelona, a problem not shared by Paris, Berlin or Amsterdam. Limiting the number of beds in the city has no impact on day-trippers, he points out.

In Amsterdam, Geerte Udo, chief executive of amsterdam&partners, says they are working on a “campaign about the rediscovery of the cultural offer, the old centre of the city and other different neighbourhoods, the local entrepreneurs and the public space. In this way, the campaign contributes to the renewed bond between residents and their city, environment and each other. It builds on our aim to seduce Amsterdamers to rediscover their city.”

At a time when many residents are revelling in the tourist-free streets, squares and beaches, it seems odd that both Amsterdam and Barcelona are urging them to “rediscover” the city. It gives the impression that the citizens abandoned the city when in fact they feel they have been expelled from it.

In the meantime, no one expects travel to recover significantly this year, so for now it is a question of wait and see.

Park Güell in Barcelona
Park Guell in Barcelona

“We think the low-cost market is going to change, both because of effects on airlines and attitudes to mobility,” Marcé said, adding that low-cost accounts for only 4 million visitors to the city.

Mar also believes there will be a natural change in tourism as a result of the pandemic.

“Tourism will be completely different,” she said. “Not everyone will travel like they used to. And those who do travel may want to do so in a calmer way, maybe they will see less but enjoy the experience more.”

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