The accessible price of travel in Europe has become a problem for locals and visitors alike.
The high tourism season hasn’t started yet, and there are already signs that landmarks in Europe are bursting at the seams.
At the end of May, reception workers at the Louvre in Paris held a one-day strike complaining that they couldn’t handle the growing, and increasingly aggressive, crowds of visitors. The historic center of the Croatian city of Dubrovnik, known to many as King’s Landing in “Game of Thrones,” can’t fit more than 8,000 people at a time. Yet it saw a 53% increase in tourist arrivals, to 101,325, in the first three months of 2019 compared with a year earlier — even limiting the number of cruise ships that can dock there hasn’t helped.
Travel has become as accessible as McDonald’s, making sure global tourist arrivals reached 1.4 billion last year, two years ahead of the World Tourism Organization’s long-term forecast (Europe absorbed half of that number, a 6% increase over 2017). In 1995, global arrivals numbered only 525 million.
As the father of two kids, I’m the first to celebrate the drop in costs brought on by air-travel market liberalization, the rise of discount airlines, a revolution in accommodations thanks to the likes of Booking.com and Airbnb, and the ubiquity of mobile devices with the best maps and listings the world has ever known. In an abstract way, I’m also happy for the retailers, hoteliers, museum keepers and others who benefit financially from the tourism boom. The European Union gets roughly a third of the world’s tourism receipts; in 2016, that was 342 billion euros ($385 billion), 27 billion euros more than EU residents spent on tourism outside the EU
I don’t want the beneficiaries to lose their livelihoods, and it would be horrible if travel turned into a privilege of the wealthy, like in “the golden age of flying” in the middle of last century. Nor am I always sympathetic with the plight of locals who feel pressured or priced out of their neighborhoods by hordes of tourists. For one thing, I doubt these locals themselves never travel, and for another, tourism revenue does tend to boost infrastructure investment. Residents don’t always appreciate the trade-off they’re making when they bemoan the high visitor numbers.
I can’t help but wonder, though, what we’re actually seeing as we travel in Europe these days. Is a forest of selfie sticks what I wanted to show my daughters at the Louvre? Where are the Jews in Budapest’s Jewish quarter, taken over in the last few years by “ruin bars” in which it’s next to impossible to meet a local? When was the last time I set foot on Prague’s magnificent main square without being elbowed a dozen times? Is a trip to Barcelona complete if you have to avoid not just the main drag but also every famous location for fear of being trampled? Where do I take a guest in central Berlin, if nearly all restaurants there don’t expect anyone to come more than once?
“Overtourism” isn’t merely a loaded word. It can be quantified in terms of tourism density (number of bed-nights per square kilometer) and tourism intensity (bed-night per capita). A major EU report on the overtourism phenomenon, published last year, found 105 areas in a state of overtourism — with density about three times as high, on average, as in other areas and intensity about twice as high. Predictably, places like Venice, Prague, Paris and Barcelona made the list — but so did Dublin, the Isle of Skye, Copenhagen, Sintra in Portugal, the center of Warsaw, the Plitvice lakes in Croatia. They attract fewer tourists than the traditional destinations, but are less able to deal with the inflow.
The report’s authors analyzed policy responses to overtourism in 41 cities and worked out a list of best practices for nations and cities. One is abandoning old-fashioned volume-targeting for tourists. Destinations’ marketing shouldn’t tell travelers that everyone is welcome all the time: It should promote “high-quality tourism” (a euphemistic way to refer to big-spending travelers), stress out-of-season times and less crowded attractions, or design tours to even out the tourist flows. Bruges in Belgium, with its sophisticated promotion strategy and specially designed event calendar, is seen as an example. Copenhagen has tried to spread tourists throughout the city, prohibiting the opening of new bars and restaurants in areas deemed to have enough of them. Iceland, with the recent tourist boom the main driver of its economic growth, has been trying to promote locations far away from the overcrowded “Golden Circle” attractions.
The Cinque Terre coastal area in Italy has taken an innovative approach to crowding: It developed an app that shows tourists how many people are already on the picturesque footpath they intend to take. So far, the effect has proved difficult to detect, though.
If the number of travelers keeps increasing at a forecast-beating pace, the potential for such “soft” measures will soon be exhausted. Charging high tourism taxes won’t help much. There’s no way in Europe to charge between $200 and $250 a day, as the kingdom of Bhutan does, so the current taxes are merely a minor annoyance that few people consider in their travel planning.
There are, of course, less obvious ways to drive up travelers’ costs. Some destinations, like Dubrovnik and the Greek island of Santorini, put a daily limit on the number of people who can disembark from cruise ships. In Santorini at least, this appears to have thinned out the pernicious traffic that contributes little to the island’s economy.
Airbnb is another obvious target. In Salzburg, Austria, buildings with five or more apartments are off limits to the service. In Copenhagen, the city authorities have made a deal with Airbnb, which allows homeowners to rent out apartments for only 70 nights a year and requires the service to report all rentals to the tax authorities. This helps maintain accommodation prices at a certain level acceptable to the city authorities — and works better than difficult-to-enforce outright bans on Airbnb, which some European cities have tried to introduce.
Yet none of these policies strike at the main cause of overtourism: the incredible ease and low cost of air travel. The 2018 EU report contains a checklist meant to help city officials figure out if they’re in danger from overtourism. The first question is, “Is your destination less than 30 kilometers from an airport?”
Cities cannot do much about this — they can’t very well close airports, force airlines to fly less frequently or increase their prices. That’s a matter for national and supranational regulators to consider, especially because budget airlines are among Europe’s biggest emitters of greenhouse gases. It could be time for Europe to get rid of the aviation fuel tax exemption. And even though the last three decades’ airline market liberalization has been a blessing in many ways, it may have turned into a liability for some overtourism-afflicted destinations. It can be argued that the current, highly competitive air-travel market is failing them.
Raising the cost of air travel to and within Europe, overall or to specific destinations, will never be popular: Many will object to it on the grounds that travel shouldn’t be just for the rich, and it’ll hurt the residents of overtourism-afflicted cities. It is, however, the ultimate remedy against overcrowding and the loss of cultural identity that accompanies it. More expensive air travel doesn’t necessarily put it out of reach for middle-class and poorer travelers — it just alters the decision-making process. I’d be OK with looking at destinations reachable by train or car for more of our regular family trips, thought it would force us to do more research. We’d still fly from time to time — but we’d try harder to make these trips more special and only pick destinations that justify the expense.
Travel is a matter of balance between our desire for instant gratification, environmental concerns and the cultural wholeness of the destinations. The best way to make travelers — that is, all of us — more sensitive to this balance is to raise the cost of purely hedonistic decisions.