Editor's Blog

Tourism: the battle for minds

One of the most contentious claims made for tourism is that is broadens the mind and makes us wiser. There’s a stronger (in my opinion) counter claim that it makes us more stupid.

That’s because a little learning is a dangerous thing and a bit like those annoying internet memes, offering philosophical guidance from Buddha or Richard Branson, the worst kind of tourism offers a shallow semblance of learning that fools us into thinking we’re smarter than we actually are.

Being coached around to a checklist of historical monuments, given ten minutes to take a selfie, is about as brainless a pastime as can be imagined, and yet walk around the plazas of Europe and you’ll still see this model of tourism touted as the ‘quickest and best way to get to know a city’.

It’s a kind of tourism that benefits no one but the tour operator; certainly not the locals who must put up with their home being treated like a theme park. But it’s only the extreme end of a broader culture of day-tripping and weekend-breaking that is the cause of mounting friction in our cities. Because, inevitably, the backlash to ‘mass tourism’ has begun, with some cities taking active (hostile?) measures to stem the flow of visitors. How the meetings industry will emerge from all of this remains to be seen.

Wonderful Copenhagen has recently issued a mission statement to ‘put an end to tourism as we know it’.  The idea is to create a new kind of visitor – not a tourist, but a ‘temporary local’ who goes not in pursuit of the ‘perfect picture’ but a ‘personal connection’ based on mutual interest and authenticity. If that all sounds like so much marketing puff, the message gets more interesting when the relationship between visitor and local is discussed. Here the city explicitly states that attracting ever greater numbers of people is not the motivating factor behind this change of tack.

‘…we must keep in mind both the liveability of the locals and the great visitor experience,’ the statement reads. ‘In other words, we need to facilitate the meeting between locals and visitors. If we fail to do so, we simply risk that the locals will turn against tourism – and vice versa. Looking at it like this, visitor growth in itself is not a goal. Increasing the value of visitors for all parties is’.

The localhood strategy is about making tourism work for Copenhagen, in terms of attracting inward investment and talent. Not ensuring X amount of people get their photo next to The Little Mermaid.

In Barcelona, where the number of hotel visitors increased from 1.7 million in 1990 to nine million in 2016, the picture is more complex, with competing ideas about how to secure a sustainable future for the city. However tourism is now the main issue of concern for locals, ahead of unemployment.

Mayor Ada Colau, a former housing activist, recently put a moratorium on new licences for hotels in order to take stock of how many there are and how many each neighbourhood can support. The action has provoked fury among hoteliers who accuse the Mayor of demonising tourists, but will no doubt go someway to appeasing the city’s 1.6 million residents who were last year outnumbered by 32 million visitors.

Her attitude to conventions is more ambiguous. She has previously expressed doubts about the sustainability of continuing to host the enormous GSMA Mobile World Congress, for example. Her stance appears to run contrary to the city’s  inward investment division, Barcelona Activa, which argues that IT/Telecom start-up companies have created 50,000 new jobs in the city.  The link between inward investment and the hosting of major conferences is something meeting industry leaders in the city will be hoping to impress on the Mayor, before she upsets some of their major clients.

Elsewhere cities are coming to terms with a seemingly ever-rising number of visitors in different ways. Venice has banned giant cruise ships from its lagoons, while Amsterdam, which has put a ban on new hotel development in the city centre, is mulling a ‘second-gate city’ near the Airport, which could act as a sort of virtual alternative for delegates at nearby RAI Congress Centre. Rome, which recently doubled its hotel or ‘tourist’ tax,  is another city grappling with the sheer volume of tourists flooding the streets. Numerous cities across the world – including Berlin, Paris and Amsterdam - are now tightening controls on Airbnb to stop rental prices spiraling out of control.

Cities are waking up to the fact that something has to give, that the culture of mass tourism is putting intolerable pressure on places where people must also live, work and raise families. Those involved in organising conferences should take note  - and be ready to articulate the difference between important knowledge transfer and a gurning selfie next to the Eifel Tower.

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  • Henrik von Arnold 07/07/2017 Of: ENITED Business Events

    Can we regulate number with price?

    This is an extremely important question. Living in Vienna as I am, we also see an increasing number of visitors coming as tourism, and more and more of them as day visitors. It might be great for the Shopping in the City, and maybe also for Food & beverage entities, but it is sustainable in the long run? Hardly.

    I think we have to find other measurements than the "God given" bed nights. It does not show us the whole picture, and it cannot be the only measurement we use.
    Is it possible to Limit the number of visitors by raising the prices on harbouring cruise ships, higher prices on Hotels, more expensive Food & beverage, and maybe also more expensive Shopping. And is it important that I only pay Euro 30 for a ticket to XX. I am prepared to pay double for a dinner or a taxi to the Airport. Somewhere we have gone wrong.

    We will make enemies when doing so. Hotels we have begged to establish them in our cities. Tourist attractions with enormous Investments and made for a high number of visitors, Restaurants in a lower prize category will lose guests etc etc.And I do understand their concerns. But can higher prices make them happier. Or can we get a local and visitor certificate, showing the supplier we are entitled to eat for less Money (that already happens in Lisbon and other cities - not the certificate but the double-standard menus.

    So will pricing work? I think so - to a certain extent.

    Can we develop measurements not only based on numbers but on sustainable thinking?

    And ask myself - do I have to travel that much myself, and can I chose destinations not overloaded with other visitors. Isn't that what we really want when we are looking for the exclusive, end-of-the-world place we would love to spend some days at.
    I mean, we just cannot ask everybody else to change their behaviour. We have been blessed to travel the world for the last 20 years , but now we might take our responsibility to Change our own.