The perils of prioritising tourism, by Cliff Hague

Venice, Barcelona, Rome, Amsterdam, Edinburgh. These are places identified by the website CNN Travel as hotspots for "overtourism". Last year the Oxford English Dictionary made overtourism one of its words of the year. So what does it mean for planning, placemaking and urban conservation?

While a global recession may yet blunt the momentum, for now we are in thrall to the sheer dynamism of the tourist industry. Money may be tight for schools, the NHS and planning departments, but there is no shortage of investors for hotels, airport extensions or the lucrative short-term letting industry. This is translating into huge pressure on sought-after destinations – pressure on development, but also on the fabric and infrastructure of historic areas and their residents, as visitors pack the streets and tourist buses pump out emissions while riders on upper decks peer into adjacent flats.

While global GDP is growing at around 3 per cent a year, tourism is expected to increase by 5 per cent a year from 2015 to 2025. Do the maths – numbers will double in less than 15 years, the sort of period a plan might focus on. The drivers include cheap air travel, increasing affluence in the Far East, and the rise of platform businesses and peer-to-peer reviews.

Once upon a time, before urban conservation morphed into marketable "heritage", capacity studies were undertaken to inform the planning of historic cities. Now, even when the diseconomies of unregulated tourism are recognised, public authorities struggle. In Montreal, for example, the Airbnb-style "sharing economy" has become a business. The head of the city’s housing committee says, "Thousands of lodgings are being illegally rented out for the tourist trade, and those are lost to the residential housing market."

In Edinburgh, where I chair the Cockburn Association, the city’s civic trust, opposition to overtourism is growing. In recent years, the city council has pumped more money into marketing Edinburgh as a tourist destination than into urban conservation, though our built and natural environment is what draws visitors. A tourism strategy for 2030 will be launched in January; the Edinburgh Tourism Strategy Implementation Group in charge of this comprises two leading councillors, and three senior officials (chief executive, director of place, and one from economic development). The other members are from tourism and marketing bodies. There is no one from the city’s planning department, or from any conservation or community bodies.

Effectively the industry is in charge, with planning and citizens consigned to near irrelevance on an issue that is changing the character of the World Heritage Site and displacing its residents. That’s ok – the aim is for "good growth" and "sustainability", so who could object?

Handing over cities to tourism businesses precludes placemaking: sites are developed ad hoc. Planning should mean challenges are anticipated and managed, not fuelled.

Cliff Hague OBE is a freelance consultant and researcher

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