Around the world, some popular tourism destinations are beginning to experience a backlash against visitors arriving in such numbers that local people are seeing their lifestyles changed, as overcrowding creates unintended economic and social consequences.
The case of Venice is well known – a medieval city of 60,000 residents receiving 49m visitors – but the latest much-visited destination to react to the effects of uncontrolled tourism on its inhabitants, is Barcelona in Spain.
In a move designed to curb any significant expansion in the more than 30m visitors the city already receives every year – there are 1.6m residents – legislation has been passed that bans the construction of all new city centre hospitality facilities, and imposes strict limits on new hotel construction and related businesses on a city-wide basis.
The scheme responds to a growing number of local complaints that the streets in the Barri Gòtic, and for example, the city’s essential if picturesque local open air food markets, have become so crowded that the residents can no longer go easily about their daily business. It also reflects growing concern among long time city dwellers and the region’s political parties that the absence of restrictions on property use and their purchase by those seeking to take advantage of burgeoning tourism demand has made housing in parts of the city unaffordable to local people, especially the young on whom the future depends.
Barcelona’s response has been to divide the city into four differently regulated zones. One of these, the historic centre, has been designated as an area of ‘natural decrease’ in which any hotel that closes will not be replaced. Elsewhere, new hotels are only to be permitted at the fringes of the city with new tourist accommodation limited to a maximum of an additional 11,000 new rooms, or the equivalent of about seven per cent of the city’s present accommodation.
In a move related to local people being priced out of the housing market, there has been a clampdown on unregistered tourism accommodation and on commercial, as opposed to residentprovided offerings through sites such as Airbnb.
Unsurprisingly, those connected with the industry have vociferously opposed the city’s approach, arguing that it will have negative economic consequences. However, what is happening in Barcelona represents a growing trend in cities and in some pristine locations where local people feel that what they have is being taken away from them.
It also suggests the first signs of a broader awareness among citizens that tourism’s benefits require more careful social consideration by politicians and the industry, and that there are limits to tourism growth.
It is a sense that is emerging in some smaller nations in the Caribbean, although not yet on a significant scale. While the majority see the economic benefits and employment that tourism brings, the arrival of multiple cruise ships disgorging large numbers of visitors is creating concern about pressure on local facilities and the environment. There is also a sense, so far largely unreported, that
some events thought of as being local or cultural are in danger of being hijacked as tourist attractions and their nature changed.
One interesting, albeit unscientific, measure of trying to understand where overcrowding in the region is happening, or may occur, is to look at arrivals, population and land mass. This approach suggests that locations such as Aruba, Curaçao and Sint Maarten are most at risk, while for example Jamaica and Guyana are not.
Personal experience however, suggests that the negative cultural and social impact of large numbers of visitors is more evident in Cuba in the cities of Havana and Trinidad; is observable in the overcrowding in some historic locations and sites of natural beauty around the region; and is being felt in the sudden influx of cruise passengers onto certain beaches in the Bahamas, the BVI and elsewhere.
In some parts of the region there is a different sense of alienation. In Barbados for instance, it is not uncommon among residents and the island’s diaspora to hear complaints of being priced out of the housing market, or that older residents feel that annual events like the annual Oistins Fish Festival, which originally celebrated the true fishing culture of the area, has been lost to profit-making and entertainment
Given the centrality of tourism to future economic growth, this all suggests that better joined-up thought is required about the impact of overcrowding and, in a Caribbean context, its social dimensions.