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On Overtourism

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We live in interesting times, if nothing else. At the same moment in which climate change is threatening to destroy human civilization and most of species on the rest of the planet (and by threatening, I’d say quite likely to do so in the next 100 years), we also see a huge spike in tourism, often by the same younger generation who is most worried about climate change. And I get it–I love to travel too, as I show on this blog all the time. Sure, some of this is the rise of the Chinese, but that’s the core of the problem or anything. Some cities–especially in Europe–are really struggling. Game of Thrones has completely ruined Dubrovnik for anyone who has to live there. Venice is on the front lines of both overwhelming tourism and climate change. Barcelona and Prague are inundated with tourists. And then there is Amsterdam. This piece isn’t as in depth as I’d like to see, but it is interesting enough a place to start a conversation.

In the era of cheap flights and Airbnb, their numbers are staggering. Some 19 million tourists visited the Netherlands last year, more people than live there. For a country half the size of South Carolina, with one of the world’s highest population densities, that’s a lot. And according to the Netherlands Board of Tourism & Conventions, the number of annual visitors is projected to increase by 50 percent over the next decade, to 29 million. Urban planners and city officials have a word for what the Netherlands and quite a few other European countries are experiencing: overtourism. With such an influx of humanity comes a decline in quality of life. Residents’ complaints range from inconvenience (crowds spilling from sidewalks to streets) to vandalism to alcohol-induced defilement (vomiting in flower boxes, urinating in mailboxes).

Amsterdam, with its museums, guided canal tours, and picturesque architecture, sees much of this collateral damage. To combat it, the city recently passed various pieces of legislation, including a moratorium on new hotel construction in much of the city; new fines (140 euros for public urination or drunk and disorderly conduct); new restrictions on Airbnb rentals (30 nights a year per unit); and a combination of bans and restrictions on new tourist-centric businesses, such as bike-rental outfits and donut shops, in the historic city center. Guided tours of the city’s Red Light District will be banned in January 2020, and thanks to new government regulations, many of its cannabis “coffee shops”—the first of which dates back to 1967—have closed. There’s even talk of charging day-trippers to set foot in the city, a bold policy recently enacted in Venice. Perhaps most telling, earlier this year the Dutch tourism board officially shifted its mission from “destination promotion” to “destination management.”

Overtourism may have pierced a part of the Dutch psyche that once seemed inviolable: its gedoogcultuur, or culture of permissiveness. Ko Koens, who studies sustainable tourism at Breda University of Applied Sciences, finds the anti-tourist sentiment expressed by his fellow citizens both curious and troubling: “There’s a certain irony that many left-wing people who condemn xenophobia nonetheless talk about ‘the Chinese’ and ‘the English’—if they’re tourists, that’s seen as okay,” Koens says.

There’s no question that this is a hard issue. The line between xenophobia and preserving your city is one that gets played over and over again, including in situations such as suburbs rejecting mass transit because it might bring in the black people or San Francisco residents freaking out about a four-story building that might shadow a park far more than the fact that no one is not a millionaire can afford to live in their city. It’s tough. There’s little question that hotel construction has not even come close to matching the rise of tourism and that the cost of hotels compared to AirBNBs really incentivizes some people to choose the latter. Even in my neighborhood in Providence this is becoming an issue. It’s close enough to things that a lot of units are now AirBNBs instead of housing for everyday people, driving up prices and encouraging people to buy multiple houses as investment properties. How do you balance the need to live in a place with your own personal desire to travel? I might not like what this could do to Providence (which is no Amsterdam, but still) but I sure do like going to Barcelona. The hypocrisy is obvious and nearly universal.

The question is policy and I’m not real sure how to handle it, though some of Amsterdam’s ideas, including forcing tourists to fork over fees to the city, seem interesting.

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