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By: Caroline Bremner

Over-tourism may be the buzz word of 2017 but it marks a watershed moment where there is a growing realisation in the travel industry that visitor numbers at all costs is no longer a sustainable strategy. Starting from the smart city template, destinations are adapting to challenges such as overcapacity and are harnessing the power of technology to this end.

2017 the year of sustainable development – and the tourism backlash

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 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.

However, in the scheme of things, population density is not excessively high in Europe compared to densely populated cities in Asia, such as Hong Kong and Singapore. For example, Hong Kong tops Euromonitor International’s  top City Destinations index,welcoming over 25.7 million international tourists, with a very high population density of 7,058 people per sq km.

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. Barcelona is expected to  receive 7.6 million international arrivals in 2017, up by 8% on 2016. Growth is expected to slow to a 2% CAGR over 2017-2025, with a deceleration taking place as a result of capacity challenges and steps being taken to control visitation. One option being floated is the introduction of a tourist tax that may be applied to day trippers, including cruise passengers. However, unless the tax is set at a very high level, it is unlikely to deter cruise operators from offering Barcelona as a destination on their itineraries.

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.

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