Tourism and overcrowding: what’s the best way to address the problem?

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Over the years, there have many instances where too many tourists visiting a “honeytrap” have created overcrowding problems. Recent examples include the decision of the Peruvian authorities to limit the number of visitors to Machu Picchu to prevent overcrowding, and potential damage to the site. Similarly, the authorities in Venice have repeatedly expressed concern as to the numbers of visitors, and have highlighted a particular concern with the arrivals of large cruise ships.


However, I was surprised to read the recent announcement of the new Mayor in Barcelona, Ada Colau that there would be a one year moratorium on licensing new hotels in the city. Not surprisingly, hotel developers have been horrified that their investments in new hotels will not be able to provide any financial returns for more than a year, and many commentators have expressed surprise that a Council should actively seek to damage or prevent one of its major sources of income.


There is no doubt that Barcelona does have a huge number of tourist arrivals. The latest figures predict that there will be 7.6 million visitor arrivals in 2015, making Barcelona the third most visited city in Europe, after London and Paris – and this to a city with a population with 1.7 million. I have to say that on my last visit to the city, I was staggered at the sheer number of tourists on the streets.


However, is the approach of banning new hotel openings going to do anything to address this issue, and is it a sensible approach to problems of overcrowding?


I have to say that it reminds me of a similar means of addressing a perceived problem, from a nearby area. In 2001, the then Balearic government introduced an Ecotax, a levy of €1 per day on all tourist accommodation. There are some other similarities, in that the government was a similar coalition of left wing parties and environmentalists. Part of the reasoning was driven by a perception that there were too many long term visitors, who were then buying up houses, making the cost of purchase too high for the local population.


If the objective was to reduce tourism, you could argue that the measure was a roaring success, in that in the 2 years following the introduction of the tax, tourism arrivals from Germany dropped by around 25% – 1 million fewer Germans visited Mallorca. For an economy primarily dependent on tourism, this was a leap too far, and after the government was voted out in May 2003, the first act of the new government was to abolish the Ecotax. It still took several years for German arrival numbers to return to previous levels.


It will be interesting to see if the new administration in Barcelona suffers a similar fate.


The first question should be whether we should accept the principle that there may be good reasons to restrict tourist arrivals to a destination like Barcelona. If so, then what is the best way to achieve that objective? Personally, the concept of effectively withdrawing previously granted planning permissions to build and open hotels doesn’t seem like the right was to go about it.


Tourists in Barcelona effectively come in 3 ways:

  • Barcelona is a large cruise port, so there are a significant number of arrivals in cruise ships. Most of these customers will stay for a day, and then move on. around 3 million tourists arrive this way.
  • The majority of tourists stay in hotels. The Spanish have some of the best tourism statistics in the world, so we know that in 2014, Barcelona had 579 tourism establishments, with 73,122 beds – that’s around the same number of beds as the whole of the Costa del Sol. That amounts to 17.5 million bed nights.
  • The last few years have also seen a massive growth in the sharing economy – and Barcelona is one of the most popular destinations for people using sharing websites – despite the largest provider having been fined by the Catalan government in 2014 for letting holidaymakers stay in unlicensed accommodation.


Presumably, part of the logic of the fines imposed by the Catalan government was to bring some control to the private letting market, by trying to ensure that all such accommodation was properly licensed. Like it or not, growth is continuing to come to this sector, and it’s difficult to imagine that the 170,000 customers who visited Barcelona in 2014 with the leading supplier will choose to use other forms of accommodation.


Equally, as one of the major cruise ports of Europe, it’s difficult to see that the cruise arrivals will drop in the near future.


If we therefore assume that the tourists will still want to come to Barcelona, is the challenge really to get them to spread their affections to more venues. Most tourists want to visit a relatively small number of sites – which quite unusually are largely free, or very low cost. I highlight 3 in particular – the Ramblas, the Sagrada Familiar and the Barcelona FC ground. It’s difficult to think of suitable alternatives to those sites – although there are other Gaudi architectural highlights in the city. However, the city authorities, should be looking at how they encourage visits elsewhere. It’s not necessarily going to relieve the pressure completely, but may help spread the load a little.


At the end of the day, tourists spend money when they visit a destination, and add a significant financial value to the community. As such, trying to prevent them coming seems short sighted – time and money would be much better spent making sure that they spread their wealth to the widest possible sections of the community.