Creative tourism shows way through Europe’s overcrowded attractions

Anyone who has tried to cross St Mark’s Square in Venice during the summer months will share the often-voiced frustration of the city’s populace when it comes to tourism overcrowding. In Spain meanwhile, protesters in Barcelona last year stormed restaurants and slashed tour bus tyres. They have been complaining that the proliferation of Airbnb rentals and restaurants catering for wealthy visitors have pushed prices out of reach of locals.

These beautiful places to visit are getting overcrowded and there’s unlikely to be any let up. Hundreds of millions of people are expected to join the world’s middle classes in the next few years, many with the money and desire to travel.

Tourism already accounts for 10 per cent of EU GDP and 9 per cent of its jobs. The task for cities and other authorities is how to smooth the flows of people without killing the goose that lays the golden egg. With hostility towards the tourist hordes reaching boiling point, Milan has banned the ubiquitous and personal-space invading selfie-sticks, while Florence has taken to hosing down the steps of its churches at lunchtimes to prevent visitors from picnicking.

There are other ways to approach the issue however. In many locations, enterprising locals are taking matters into their own hands and coming up with quirky solutions to reduce the impact of tourism disruption and gain a greater share of the wealth. Take the Untourism Movement Amsterdam for example, which describes itself as a more than 200-strong community of social entrepreneurs, hotels, hostels, city guides and non-for-profit associations with a vision to “change tourism in Amsterdam for the better”.

Its ethos is that travelers should be more than mere consumers and should contribute to the life of a city. It has published a guide with dozens of suggestions, such as Marry an Amsterdammer for the Day. This is a scheme to let tourists and residents tie the knot for a day to improve relations between locals and visitors. On your honeymoon the local helps you discover the city’s hidden gems.

Another initiative is the Feed the Dutch excursion, which involves taking a picnic lunch from a local bakery to the Westerpark, where visitors are encouraged to make friends and share their food and drink with the Dutch.

In Italy, some local business groups have also been focusing on reconnecting the visitor to the resident. In Venice, Sebastian Fagarazzi and Valeria Duflot have set up Venezia Autentica with the mission to ensure Venetian businesses and people are the ones to benefit from the city’s 30 million visitors each year.

Through its web site and social media campaigns, Venezia Autentica is seeking to connect tourists with local artisans and businesses and to help visitors experience the city like a Venetian. Walking tours, hidden restaurants, mosaic making and many other activities direct tourists’ attention, the organisers say, away from solely gawping at monuments and towards helping the local economy.

Then there’s fairbnb.coop, an initiative started in 2016 and originally centered on Venice, Amsterdam and Bologna. This is a not for profit home-sharing site that permits only resident hosts and only allows one home per host. Fairbnb.coop is currently undergoing crowdfunding and plans to launch soon. Half of the commission from rentals will be ploughed back into community projects. It stands as an implicit criticism of Airbnb, which is seen by some as increasingly dominated by agencies and foreign investors. A 2018 report by Italy’s Centro Studi di Federalberghi Nazionale found around half of all hosts in Italy had multiple listings.

One of the more comprehensive approaches has been further touted by the Netherlands. Amsterdam is forecast to attract at least 29 million visitors by 2030, a 50 per cent increase from 2017. A Perspective 2030 tourism strategy paper therefore focuses on trying to encourage more guests out of the capital to the rest of the country.

Paris, which welcomed 40 million visitors last year, also has a long-term vision focusing on management through technology and channeling visitors away from must-sees, such as the Eiffel Tower, towards lesser known sites like the Pere Lachaise cemetery, whose famous occupants include Jim Morrison, Edith Piaf and Oscar Wilde.

Imagine the peace of finding a city’s hidden gems and helping the local economy instead of dodging the St Mark’s pigeons. Somewhere in these innovative initiatives is a lasting way forward.