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By: Caroline Bremner

The United Nations made 2017 the International Year of Sustainable Tourism, months after the successful signing of the COP21 agreement in Paris in December 2016. With a sharper focus on sustainability, it is therefore not then too surprising that certain tourism flashpoints have hit the global headlines, and the travel industry is having to justify its continued growth along with its common practices. Barcelona and Venice have been in the epicenter of over tourism and trying to figure out how to attract sustainable tourism.

Barcelona has borne its fair share of media headlines for the rising tensions between local residents and incoming tourists, with the city centre creaking at the seams as city break tourists fly in on low cost carriers and cruise ship passengers add to the volumes. Currently, Barcelona’s El Prat airport caters for 44 million passengers annually, and is aiming to raise its capacity to 55 million. Other destinations to hit the headlines include Iceland, Venice and Bhutan, with the latter imposing restrictions on international visitors as a means to protect its environment.

Europe aims to strike the right balance between residents and tourists

Europe has been at the forefront of the criticism concerning over-tourism, as the presence of tourists has started to damage the local environment and the quality of life of residents by impacting on public services, such as transport and waste disposal. Tolerance levels towards visitors have thus been reduced, owing to the sense that the city is no longer theirs and they feel that they have been pushed out, whether through high rents or property being repurposed for tourists. This is also a challenge for seasonal migrant workers, who may no longer have anywhere to stay locally during the season.

Keeping one step ahead of capacity challenges

Barcelona, which is a key over-tourism flashpoint, is predicted to experience slow growth in arrivals over 2017-2025 – a sign that the city has reached a ceiling. In the fast growing economies of Singapore and Hong Kong, future tourism demand is likely to pose numerous challenges, and taking a ‘smart nation’ approach as seen in Singapore will be essential to ensure that the anti-tourism tipping point is not reached.

Barcelona exemplifies what happens when cities grow too much

Barcelona is struggling to cope with the sheer numbers of visitors, and the debate has erupted on a global stage, with anti-tourism graffiti and residents’ rising anger and frustration over the lack of affordable housing, which has been blamed on private accommodation being rented illegally. The city is also suffering from the large volumes of cruise passengers that arrive in the city on a daily basis, with 2.6 million a year in what is the world’s fourth largest port and the Mediterranean’s largest. The city is one of the mostly densely populated in Europe, with close to 15,824 inhabitants per square kilometre, and mass tourism is exacerbating the problem. The city is home to eight UNESCO listed sites, and is on the body’s “Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity” list, which means that the city is of immense importance to culture, thanks in part to the unique architecture of Antoni Gaudí. This status makes it even more important that a balance is struck between the local community and international visitors interested in the city’s unique cultural offer.

It is time to change and choose value over volume

Barcelona seems to be all things to all people. It is the largest port in the Mediterranean, one of the world’s most successful business travel/MICE destination, with almost 600,000 attendees, as well as a short break destination, with iconic and unique cultural significance. The city has been a victim of its own success, and embodies the challenges of other cities around the world that have seen a focus on driving volume growth over value growth.

Spain has been successful in broadening its appeal away from sun and sea to niche segments like health and wellness, and Barcelona’s Premium initiative to target culturally aware tourists will help it reposition itself. Other ways are to increase the focus on higher spending visitors by having a joined up strategy with airport expansion and the Ministry of Transport, so that new routes are chosen carefully to ensure higher spending visitors.

Regulation as key to the over-tourism solution

With tourism development having got out of hand in Barcelona, the local government has taken steps to curb the supply of lodging. There is a moratorium on new licences for tourist accommodation, which affects hotels and future pipeline development, with few new hotel outlets coming online. Those that do need to adhere to the new laws under the Special Urban Plan for Tourist Accommodation (PEUAT).

Short-term rentals have also come under close scrutiny, with licences required to rent out rooms for less than 30 days, based on the Catalan Tourist Act, along with inspectors to ensure regulations are adhered to, and the closure of 615 illegal operations. The local government also banned the change of use permits necessary for short-term lets, and enforced a minimum stay for players such as Airbnb. To ensure enforcement, there are 40 inspectors, with plans for 100 in total, to root out illegal rentals, with reports of 7,000 illegal properties out of 16,000 rental properties.

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