Tourists in front of the Trevi Fountain in Rome

There is hardly anything more prestigious for a city than to be included in UNESCO’s World Heritage List. With over 500 sites listed, Europe is the continent which boats the most World Heritage sites (no doubt also because of the Euro-centric selection criteria). In some cases, entire cities or historic town centers are classified as world heritage, a status that next to reputation also brings other considerable benefits. Studies have shown that world heritage status has contributed to economic regeneration, conservation, education, funding and enhanced civic pride in sites.

Most of the economic benefits that come along with the status are connected to the rise in tourism. However, the ever-increasing numbers of tourist have also proved to be a double-edged sword for historic cities. While tourists bring money to shops and restaurants, in some cases the stampede of visitors has left cities over-crowded, and increased demand inflates prices and drives out locals from city centres. This phenomenon has been termed “Unesco-cide” by Italian journalist Marco d’Eramo, who criticises the notion that UNESCO preserves historic sites, but allows the destruction of communities within or around them. So, are we really preserving our historic cities, or are we actually killing them?

What do our readers think? We received a comment from Florian, who says that, in the past, Venice “was a city full of charm and history, and also famed for culture. But today it’s full of people and you literally cannot breathe. I think we have to take care of culture cities and bring them back to the roots!”

We put his comment to Anna Lisa Boni, the Secretary General of Eurocities. Eurocities is a network of more than 200 cities in 38 countries that works together with the EU and aims to ensure a good quality of life for all. What does Anna Lisa Boni think, what are the negative sides of tourism on cities and what can we do to stop them?

Already for a long time the effects of mass tourism have been clear and recognised. City centers have changed heavily with mass tourism: there restaurants go cheaper, houses are filled with tourists on Airbnb, it gets difficult for local businesses to survive, city centers become empty of residents and are filled only with tourists, streets start to look all the same with retailing chains taking shop everywhere… In many Italian cities you have had this problem for a long time, especially in cities that are not as big as Rome, for example like Venice and Florence, where space is definitely more limited.

This is not sustainable for such cities and that is why local authorities have tried to regulate this for a while. For instance, by limiting the number of hotel licences in the center, or by pushing for multinational digital platforms like Airbnb to share data to avoid illegal rentals etc. They take these actions to avoid that city centers end up becoming museums or pubs.

In this debate housing is a real issue. Very often cities have emptied themselves or there have been problems with residents because private owners rent their homes to digital platform like Airbnb that cannot be regulated or controlled. So one problem is the impact of unregulated growth of Short Term Holiday Rentals in local communities. The consequences of illegal rentals can include reducing the stock of houses intended for residential use, but also, talking about tourists, the increase of nuisances (e.g. noise disturbance) especially in city centers, and sometimes breaching other areas of public safety such as how many people can stay in one location. For these reasons, at Eurocities we have supported many of our cities to call for a solid regulatory framework to effectively help them enforce the national, regional or local rules that are in place, along with appropriate regulatory tools that should be better defined also at the EU level, for example in the EU’s Digital Services Act to solve the cross-border nature of online services.

Since Florian also speaks of culture, it is also about working in a renewed way with cities’ cultural heritage. Rediscovering and revitalising historic downtown neighbourhoods as a way to spark the wider city centre revitalisation can be very important. For instance revitalising neighbourhoods by giving it to creatives, using open calls from cities to support the growth of creative businesses and an attractive city centre. At the same time though, cities must renovate and pedestrianise public areas. Or see cultural spaces, bars and cafes with a local flavour and managed by small businesses as a way to revitalise and attract tourists to creative districts. Cultural investments should be seen as essential to local economic development (real estate, industrial or service-based) and territorial attractiveness and cultural policy should make the most of local cultural and creative industries (working with the local game company, for instance, in developing story-telling and interactive apps or with local artists – street art and festivals).

In short, cities should see culture as a key element in the experience economy to make places attractive to visit, settle or invest in.

Our reader Civis, on the other hand, thinks that cities don’t have much of a choice other than embracing tourism. He says “tourism is the only serious income for many historic cities which have lost their previous roles. I can’t imagine Venice or Dubrovnik without tourism.” Is Civis right? What does Anna Lisa Boni, Secretary General of Eurocities, think?

We were obliged to imagine – and actually even witness – Venice and Dubrownik without tourism, during COVID-19, which is, fundamentally, an urban pandemic and it has exposed a number of systemic urban vulnerabilities: access to basic services and rights, healthcare, housing, digital rights in particular, but also economic and environmental sustainability and resilience. European city centres, shaped by mass tourism for decades, were shown to be fragile when lockdown measures and travel restrictions emptied them of tourists and the deep economic recession brought hotels, shops and restaurants to close. The pandemic has highlighted the need to rethink these urban areas and transition towards greater socio-cultural, economic and environmental sustainability.

Urban tourism was hit harder by the pandemic than any other urban economic activity. That is why European city governments have devoted numerous efforts to supporting businesses and the tourism sector through a range of types of policy measures. But they are also aware of the need to diversify local economies in order to ensure greater resilience and economic sustainability, particularly in city centres, while at the same time rethinking the urban tourism model so that it better reconciles residents’ well-being with quality tourism.

In order to foster this change in city centres, however, this endeavour has to go hand in hand with measures undertaken in other policy sectors such as housing, governance and sustainability. Transforming urban centres in mixed, sustainable and resilient neighbourhoods entails dealing with issues beyond the urban economy, such as ensuring urban polycentrism (decentralised provision of services, labour opportunities, transportation options, green areas, etc.), boosting local commerce and ensuring diversity of housing opportunities (social, public and private housing in the different urban areas). It also means that long-term strategies must be drawn up in a way that build on the previous experiences with overtourism in cities.

So, in short: we must really think that firstly, mass tourism is not an answer to a city’s problems of economic development and secondly, the traditional model has to be rethought .

Finally, our reader Nadl has some suggestions how we could all help to reduce the impact of tourism on historic cities. She says: “Travelling is amazing, you will get to know new culture, people, idea, life styles… You learn a lot from travelling. However, there are always some difficulties of coexistence of the tourists and the locals. Often cities are polluted and the residents are aggravated by the tourists. My opinion: Stop to pollute – and just enjoy your trip!” Is less pollution and sustainable tourism the answer for cities who suffer from tourism? What does Anna Lisa Boni think?

Tourism, as it has been conceived in the last decades, is per se not sustainable. Often the way people travel is the problem. The forms of environmental-friendly tourism are still too much of a niche and do not fly. Tourists can be a problem, because of the way they travel, the way they consume and the way they stay. So, it is important to really support those cities that do their best to move to different forms of tourism that are linked to a positive urban development of their city.

For example, those cities, that try to rebrand themselves, through their cultural offers and heritage for instance, use cultural heritage much more, and cultural heritage for mixed uses as well for instance citizens engagement or economic activities so culture is connected to tourism but also to other activities that are done and used by the residents. Or those cities, that try to organise the housing market, so that city centers are not only covered with multinational digital platforms related accommodations. We also need to support cities that aim to connect tourism policies with the urban regeneration of some areas so that new itineraries are created, cultural heritage is valued and new parts of a city get promoted and known. And finally, we need to support cities in their efforts to go carbon neutral and therefore make an effort also to reach the targets in the tourism field.

Are we preserving or killing our historic cities? Can historic cities even survive without tourism? What can we do against the negative side effects of tourism? Let us know your thoughts in the comment section below!

5 comments Post a commentcomment

What do YOU think?

  1. avatar
    EU Reform Proactive

    Not only some cities, but much much more!

    “Tourism is a sector where the EU can or may support, coordinate or complement the action of members, but has no power to pass laws or interfere.” Ok, let’s see:

    We are now discussing “EU supporting competencies”! Are we being “snafued” once more? “

    The much-promoted meaning of “sustainability & circular economy” comes to mind!

    “EDEN” is an EU initiative that promotes sustainable & green tourism.

    How can the EU juggle eternal growth to maximize e.g. the tourist industry and employment with sustainability and the preservation of a pristine nature? Magic?
    Mentioned are Thisted (Denmark), Gürsu (Turkey’), Middelfart (Denmark)

    Consider: if one would divert the masses of tourists from Paris, the Trevi Fountain or Venice to the new EU “EDEN” etc. – how long would it take that THISTED, GÜRSU and MIDDELFART are overrun & destroyed?

    How appropriate would the saying be:

    “When you are up to your neck in alligators, it’s easy to forget that the goal was to drain the swamp.”? OG?

  2. avatar

    The pandemic has completely changed the calculation, hasn’t it? 2020 was, if I’m not mistaken, the worst year in tourism history. The question is how should the tourism industry rebuild in a more sustainable way?

  3. avatar

    Excesiva masificadoDemasiado vuelo barato y demasiadas emisiones de CO2

  4. avatar
    EU Reform Proactive

    If we agree with ALB- that: “…firstly, mass tourism is not an answer to a city’s problems of economic development and secondly, the traditional model has to be rethought.” Missing- is how?

    Why do experts or politicians never give direct answers, nor risk the dilemma to suggest a specific solution- only generally hints?

    Any regulation/law to seriously restrict or restructure tourism has to be taken by national/local authorities. (National competency).

    Any ruling party or coalition will think twice not to upset a flourishing tourism business where everyone scores financially- including the resultant number in political support. Being too protective will cost votes & eventually their grip on “power”.

    What now? Probably do nothing- or:

    • Sensibly agree to cap the tourist numbers for endangered areas?
    • Make the area less attractive- (cover up most of the “Trevi fountain”, switch off the water, dismantle half of the Eiffel tower or declare a state of emergency?
    • Make it extraordinary expensive- that only the top 5% can afford to take a snapshot to send home?
    • Brutally slash visitor numbers (by law) by a big margin (~50%). in favor that the rest may book a cheap but state of the art “virtual visit”- either from their balcony, or from an unattractive, neglected or under-developed destination.
    • Give the national parliaments an ultimatum- to- for God’s sake- make for once a wise decision & implement such rare wisdom before the next election & before the water in the Trevi fountain evaporates?

    Enough to get national parliamentarians thinking?

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