COVID-19 empties tourist traps in Europe: Crisis or opportunity?

Europe’s top travel destinations are almost empty this year, as tourists stay at home rather than risk contracting COVID-19.

That has meant a severe economic impact on countries such as Italy, Spain, and Greece, which rely heavily on international tourism. But some European cities are using the unaccustomed peace and quiet to rethink their whole approach to tourists.

Places like Venice, in Italy, and Barcelona, in Spain, have found themselves completely swamped by foreign tourists in recent years, as affordable mass tourism brought millions of people to their canals and streets.

That has led to a backlash from local residents concerned that the spirit of their hometowns is being destroyed. So this year, officials and citizens’ groups in Europe are re-imagining tourism so as to soften its impact and make places less economically reliant on visitors.

There is much talk of “sustainable” tourism. But that means lower numbers and fewer profits. When the pandemic has passed, tourism operators will be strongly tempted to rebuild their businesses quickly in traditional fashion. But for those taking a longer view, says Patrick Torrent, the head of tourism in Catalonia, “there will never be a better time to change models.”

Basel, Switzerland; and Rome

In Venice, empty gondolas rock at their moorings on the Grand Canal; in Barcelona, desolate shopping streets lie silent.

The coronavirus has taken a devastating toll on European tourist destinations. But some of them, which once groaned uncomfortably under the weight of visitors, are taking the pandemic as a chance to reinvent themselves, to break their profitable but destructive habit of mass tourism.

“Coronavirus has changed the world,” says Paola Mar, in charge of tourism planning and management at the Venice city council. “It is an opportunity for us, an accelerator of change.”

The Italian city of Venice normally hosts an average of 55,000 tourists (more than the city’s population) each day, many of them day-trippers from cruise ships. The countrywide lockdown imposed on March 9 brought visitor numbers down to zero.

Tourists are now making a timid return, but officials say they do not want the crowds to swell to their previous size. Venice hopes to attract fewer tourists who would stay longer, says Ms. Mar. In the works is an “access tax” to discourage day-trippers, which would run to $12 in the high season.

At the same time, efforts are underway to encourage Venetians to stay in Venice, rather than flee to cheaper housing on the mainland. That means jobs, says Carolyn Smith, a researcher with the nonprofit We Are Here Venice, who would like to see the city become a hub for high-tech startups and a home for traditional crafts such as boat-building.

“People need to work, so we need viable economic alternatives” to mass tourism, says Ms. Smith, who lives in Venice and co-wrote a recent report on the city’s post-COVID-19 future. “I have friends here who have degrees, but there are no jobs so they earn a living taking tourists to their Airbnb apartments.”

The city “has become a by-word for the worst excesses of tourism,” the report says, so there is “intense scrutiny as to how Venice will respond to the global drop in tourism.”

Flavio Lo Scalzo/Reuters

A restaurant employee wears a protective face mask while standing on St. Mark’s Square amid the COVID-19 outbreak in Venice, Italy, July 9, 2020. The country’s National Tourism Agency warns the sector will not recover before 2023.

It could start by regulating Airbnb, suggests Ms. Smith, following the example of Barcelona and Berlin, both of which have restricted the number of Airbnb apartments.

Maurizio Ugolini, who manages seven Airbnb apartments in the city, says such ideas are great in normal times but the focus now should be on recovery. Many families count on rental property for income so it would be unfair to suddenly limit the number of nights they can rent or to strip them of their permits, he argues. “Venice needs the type of tourism that sleeps in Venice … that buys groceries, that integrates with the locals, that lives the city like a Venetian even for just a few days,” he says. “What we do not need are those huge crowds coming for the day and making even walking through the streets impossible.”

But the $3.5 billion that tourism injected into the Venetian economy last year was of huge benefit to a sinking city in continuous need of money for maintenance, he points out.

Italy’s National Tourism Agency warns the sector will not recover before 2023, so there is time to rethink the next phase. “We are not going to solve the problems overnight, but we can use this critical window of opportunity,” says Ms. Smith. “People are talking about the problem and things are moving forward.”

“Space for reflection”

Similar soul-searching is underway in Barcelona. Shops along Passeig de Gràcia, which by some estimates account for almost a third of all tourist purchases in Spain, are shuttered or open only briefly. The usually overpacked beachfront has room, if anyone wanted to take it.

“We never imagined that we’d reach this level of paralysis,” says Patrick Torrent, executive director at the Catalan Tourist Board. But “this situation has made it possible to generate space for reflection on the tourism model that we want,” he adds.

He expects that sustainable tourism, respectful not only of the environment but also of Barcelona’s society and culture, will gain ground in his city. Sustainability, he points out, is a central tenet of European recovery plans, from the European Commission’s pledge to “strengthen the green transformation” of EU tourism, to the Spanish government’s recovery package for the sector and the Catalan regional government’s own road maps for the future. 

Albert Gea/Reuters

A woman looks at masks displayed at a souvenir shop amid the COVID-19 outbreak in Barcelona, Spain, July 27, 2020. The pandemic has highlighted the dangers of Barcelona’s economic dependency on foreign international tourism.

“The sector is aware that there will never be a better time to change models,” he says.

Others are less optimistic, worrying that rescue packages will simply finance a return to business as usual in a city where tourism accounts for 12% of gross domestic product and roughly 9% of jobs – more in historic neighborhoods boasting the architectural legacy of Spanish architect Antoni Gaudí or beachfront developments like the Vila Olímpica.

Claudio Milano, a social anthropologist at the Ostelea Tourism Management School, is skeptical. Part of the problem, he says, is that cities like Barcelona emerged from the 2008 crisis by focusing their economy on tourism services linked to the rise of the gig economy, such as Airbnb and Uber, rather than on local residents’ needs.

Dr. Milano is worried that many in the tourism industry are “talking about reactivation along the same lines and the same paradigms that we had pre-COVID: increase arrivals and maximize profits. These are the same indicators that led us to worry about over-tourism,” he warns.

Social activists in Barcelona have long advocated “degrowth.” Mass tourism, they complain, has pushed up house prices and forced families out as investors buy to rent, replaced neighborhood stores with shabby souvenir shops, made restaurants unaffordable to locals, clogged public transport, and brought noise levels incompatible with a good night’s sleep.

“All these factors make daily life so complicated for people that even if they can afford the rent, they give up,” says Daniel Pardo of the Assemblea de Barris pel Decreixement Turístic (ABDT). “No one wants their life to be a war.”

The ABDT, the Neighborhood Assembly for Decreased Tourism, is a European network pushing for the creation of sustainable cities. Now it is focusing its research on how to emerge from the COVID-19 pandemic with policies that contribute to diversifying the economy while not overlooking long-running issues such as climate change.  

Mr. Pardo takes no pleasure in the pendulum swing from overtourism to no tourism. “This is not degrowth,” he stresses. “This is a massive socioeconomic crisis. It’s a drama. What we wanted was a planned process of social and economic transformation.” 

The pandemic has highlighted the dangers of Barcelona’s economic dependency on foreign international tourism. In the short term, experts believe, the city could make up some of its losses by boosting domestic tourism, but what is required in the long term is economic diversification.

Ernest Cañada, who studies mass tourism in Catalonia, says it won’t be simple, but the region could start by fostering reindustrialization, encouraging agricultural activity and boosting the care sector and high-tech.

“We are in a moment of conflict over what is going to happen,” says Mr. Cañada. “There are forces pushing for a simple reactivation of the tourism sector and forces that bet on transformation. In the middle of all that there is a lot of suffering.”

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