Last weekend, yet another anti-tourism demonstration took place in the city of Palma de Majorca. How much tourism is too much? DW talked to Torsten Kirstges, an expert on tourism, to learn more.
DW: Just how serious is the situation in Majorca?
Torsten Kirstges: There already was an anti-tourism demonstration in May. Again and again, there have been massive protests, as well as graffiti slogans. But it's got to be stressed that only a small portion of the island's overall population is protesting. The majority of locals living in tourist hotspots like Palma de Majorca make their living in the tourist trade. After the holiday season is over, they're exhausted and glad the tourists have left. But they need the tourists to make a living. Tourism drives the economy. No holiday destination will want to jeopardise that industry.
City tourism is booming. It's a billion euro industry. At the same time, many destinations are overwhelmed by the masses of tourists that are flooding in. Will cities like Palma de Majorca, Venice or Barcelona simply have to put up with that?
The cities you mentioned are ones that directly benefit or suffer - depending on what perspective you take - from cruise ship tourism. Cruise ship tourism has grown incredibly in recent years and will continue to do so.
Cruises are no longer a thing for just the wealthy, they've become more affordable, and cruise lines are tapping into new customer groups, like families. Cruise ships also cater to a growing demand for an enhanced sense of security. These are all factors that have contributed to the boom in cruise ship tourism. It means that these cruise ships increasingly call in at tourist hotspots along to Mediterranean coast. These are appealing cities with much to see and offer, and a perfect infrastructure with ports near tourist attractions. It's hard stopping tourists from flocking there.
If 20,000 tourists disembark from their cruise ships all at once, Palma de Majorca's streets are suddenly chock-a-block with people. Not exactly what you would call sustainable tourism, right?
Yes and no. Tourists flocking to certain hotspots can mean a more sustainable form of tourism than when large numbers of holiday-makers are dispersed over large areas.
Even when tourists ruin such places? Like in Venice, were cruise ships damage the buildings' foundations and where hundreds of thousands of visitors overrun the city each day.
In that case, I'd say it's better to ruin those tourist hotspots than other places. I've referred to this as a kind of 'ghetto tourism' in the sense of artificial holiday centres, like holiday parks. They're not bad from an ecological perspective. Holiday-makers don't have to travel long distances meaning there is little pollution. Waste water and rubbish disposal is centrally organised, which is great. Okay, in winter time energy consumption will increase due to extra heating. But all in all, this is better than if all holiday-makers travelled to the Caribbean.
Great, so Venice will morph into an Open-Air Center Park where tourists pay an entry fee?
(Laughs) The locals will be the only remaining nuisance...
For years, Venice's population has been dropping. Locals are moving away, fleeing the tourist crowds and the effects they're having on city life. Rents have ballooned. What makes it so hard to control tourism?
The question is whether you want to control tourism. If politicians introduce a restriction, for instance a cap stipulating that instead of 20,000 tourists only 5,000 may embark from their cruise ships and flood into town, then this means government is putting a damper on the local economy. Restaurants, ice cream parlours, souvenir shops all lose out on business. Those politicians and parts of the population who want fewer tourists will immediately take flak from those who earn their living in the tourist trade.
Sounds like a deadlock.
It's tricky, for sure. Some regions have imposed restrictions. Those are regions that can be easily regulated due to their geography. Canyons and parks, for instance, have caps on the number of visitors allowed to enter. They can shut the gates if they want to. But that's hard to do in cities or places like Majorca. Making things more expensive is one possible option, in my opinion. That's the simplest and most market-compatible method. Once you make things more expensive, demand drops. That even lets you aim for a more up-market kind of tourism. Without the party tourists, who're all about bargains and booze, you get people who're willing to pay more money for their holiday, provided they get a better quality experience.
Burkard Kieker, who's responsible for promoting Berlin as a tourist destination, brought together major European cities to shares ideas on how best to regulate tourist flows. Some ideas that were discussed suggested that visitors could be directed to rural regions surrounding cities, or that fees could be charged for entering certain urban districts. What do you make of these ideas?
That's a legitimate attempt to draw tourists to suburban areas. But most tourists prefer visiting hotspots. In Barcelona, they'll want to visit the Sagrada Familia church, in Palma de Majorca they'll wants to see the cathedral. No-one in charge of tourism should prohibit them from doing so. You can create alternative tourist attractions, different incentives and put up all kinds of placards. But ultimately, tourists make their own choices. And thank god for that! Being free to travel where ever we want is part of our democratic freedom, it's part of liberal society - a society nobody wants to abolish. We can be glad to living in such a society.
What would need to happen to improve the situation in tourist hotspots?
Cities must become more expensive or less appealing. To put it sarcastically: a few more anti-tourist rallies, including wide-ranging media coverage, and a region or city loses some of its appeal to holiday-makers. If similar incidents keep occurring in Barcelona, the city loses some of its appeal to tourists. Just like Turkey is just now. But you can't wish for that.
So the hordes just move on to a new destination. And everything starts over. Will we have to accept this situation as long as there are budget flights, an abundance of cheap accommodations to chose from, and as long as tourist hotspots keep attracting visitors?
That's what I expect. The budget airlines you've mentioned are an important factor. I think flying could be made more expensive. Talks have been held on the EU level on whether carriers should be made to participate in the emissions trading system. The system didn't get off the ground due to an American and Chinese veto several years ago. And the Trump administration certainly won't push things forward. Unfortunately, the EU has just decided to exempt flights outside the European Economic Area from the emissions scheme until 2020. It's up to them. More sensible plane fares, that factor in the negative consequences of flying, would automatically reduce certain kinds of tourism. A return ticket to Majorca for only 19 euros - that's just unnecessarily cheap.
If you were the EU president, what would you do?
If I were EU president, I'd say we make rules that apply throughout the whole EU. American, Asian or Arabic airlines need to pay up if their planes take off from or land at European airports. That would reduce international air traffic. By that I don't mean business travellers, who must to get to some place, or holiday-makes who go on a three-week trip once a year. They're certainly entitled to that. Instead, I mean short trips by plane. They use a disproportionate amount of resources, disproportionately harm the environment and put excessive strain on holiday destinations. Higher planes fares could regulate that. But it would have to be regulated in a way that doesn't interfere with market competition and would need to take effect across the entire EU.
So political regulation is the answer? What else?
Issuing bans. The Croatian island of Hvar is on the verge of morphing into a party island. But that's no longer wanted so now heavy fines are dished out for all those who are a public nuisance or go about town in skimpy clothing.
Political decision-makers can attempt to hike up prices on the regional level for certain kinds of tourism. That's effective. But it doesn't stigmatise tourism as a whole. Nobody is against the average tourist who goes on a two-week holiday and spends his money in the processes. Instead, people are trying to curb extreme mass tourism and the excesses associated with certain kinds of tourists.
So nobody wants the party tourists?
Nobody wants the unregulated, negative effects resulting from certain kinds of tourism. That includes the consequence of sex tourism, toxic exhaust fumes emitted by cruise ships, environmental damage and the destruction of cultural heritage through mass tourism. The most effective way to achieving change is by jacking up prices. And it doesn't have to stop there. If you don't want budget tourism, then you can also improve the quality of hotels. That means going from cheap one or two star hotels to premium four-star hotels and up. So when the OK is given to build new hotels, to revamp or extend existing ones, then you can ensure only a certain kind of high-end hotels is built. That, in turn, attracts a specific clientele of tourists. And leads to value-added products. The same flight, the same environmental pollution resulting from that plane tip, now leads to a value-added product. Which of course is desirable. And incidentally, Majorca has seen lots of change in this area in recent decades.
But if urban tourism continues to grow unabated, it will destroy what it seeks.
Yes, exactly. Tourism destroys what it seeks, by finding exactly what it's after. It's the phenomenon of the masses: it's great because anyone can have it, but when everyone has access to it, it loses its appeal.
The interview was conducted by Anne Termèche (br).
Torsten Kirstges holds a professorship in tourism at Jade University of Applied Sciences. He is an expert on sustainable tourism, among other areas.