1. Skip to content
  2. Skip to main menu
  3. Skip to more DW sites

Europe's overcrowded destinations hope for a fresh start

Felix Schlagwein
May 31, 2021

Cities like Venice, Amsterdam and Barcelona were in danger of suffocating under the weight of mass tourism. The pandemic was a respite. Now these cities are aiming to prevent overtourism in the future. Can they succeed?

Exterior of Barcelona's Sagrada Familia cathedral
The famed Sagrada Familia cathedral in Barcelona has reopened to touristsImage: Imago/robertharding

In Venice, you can see with your own eyes how the city is recovering during the coronavirus pandemic. Now that tens of thousands of tourists are not walking through the historic Old Town every day, cruise ships are not passing by, and even the tourist boats are at a standstill, the water is suddenly clearer than it has been in 60 years. Even dolphins are said by some to have been seen in the lagoon around the city. And the Venetians have also been able to move freely in their city again for years without having to squeeze through crowds of visitors.

At the same time, they realized how dependent they are on tourism. After all, the 20 million or so visitors here spent around 3 billion euros a year – and that in a city whose historic center is home to just 50,000 people.

Now that Italy has relaxed its entry regulations and travelers from EU countries can come so long as they have tested negative, the first tourists are slowly making their way back to the city. But Venice has taken precautions to prevent a mass influx of tourists in the future – or at least to make it more bearable.  With surveillance cameras and the collection of cell phone data, it wants to better manage the flow of tourists. After several delays, the planned tax for day tourists is also to be introduced from 2022. The amount of the tax is to be based on how busy the city is. Those staying overnight in Venice will be exempt from the tax. In this way, the city administration wants to keep guests in the city longer and thus create more sustainable tourism.

Venice tourism to reopen

Venice takes on cruise ships and Airbnb

One of the main sources of annoyance for Venetians were the cruise ships that sailed into the lagoon and docked just a few meters from the historic center. For many, they have become the symbol of a sick tourism where the goal is to see as much as possible in a short time and then leave. This is to be stopped in the future. In early April, the Italian government decided to ban cruise ships from the lagoon.

They are now to dock about 10 kilometers (6.2 mi) away, in the industrial port of Marghera. The construction of a new cruise terminal is already being planned. For critics, however, this does not go far enough. They are calling for a limit on the number of ships allowed to dock in Venice per day, similar to what the Croatian coastal city of Dubrovnik already introduced in 2019.

A cruise ship passes through Venice lagoon
There will be no more scenes like this in Venice in the future, as cruise ships have finally been banned from the lagoonImage: AFP/M. Medina

Venice also wants to address the problem of short-term rentals via platforms such as Airbnb more vigorously than before. Together with Florence, which has also been overrun by mass tourism in the past, the city council has submitted a list of demands for tourism of the future to the Italian government.

The manifesto demands that owners should be allowed to offer their properties for a maximum of 90 days per year. This not only aims to curb mass tourism, but also to make rents affordable again for local residents. These had exploded in recent years as a result of renting to tourists, forcing locals out of the city. Another demand is a ban on new tourist stores and souvenir stores. Instead, stores selling local and traditional products are to reclaim the streets.

Florence and Venice thus follow other European metropolises that struggled with overtourism before the coronavirus pandemic. Many of them have used the time during lockdown to impose limits on short-term rentals, such as Prague, Budapest and, most recently, Vienna. Many cities see this as one of the most important steps to counteract mass tourism in the future. Amsterdam and Barcelona have long since adopted such regulations. They are considered pioneers in the fight against mass tourism, which cheap flights and inexpensive accommodation made so popular in the years before the pandemic.

Amsterdam taking controversial measures

The Dutch capital was particularly hard hit by the influx of tourists. In the year before the pandemic, nearly 22 million tourists came – more than 25 times as many people as live in the city. By 2030, there could be as many as 32 million visitors a year, the Netherlands' tourist board estimates. Much like Venice or Prague, a large number of them flock to a small, particularly iconic part of the city.

In Amsterdam, it's the red light district. Party tourists made life unbearable for many residents here. At night, many of them could not sleep because of the noise on the streets. In the morning, they had to run the gauntlet around the puddles of urine and piles of garbage. Numerous awareness raising campaigns and increased fines, for example on public consumption of alcohol, made little difference.

The city government therefore took further measures during the pandemic to make the red-light district less attractive to tourists and more appealing to locals. Last June, it enacted a ban on vacation rentals, including Airbnb and the like, in three downtown districts. However, a court overturned that in mid-March. Still, the city wants to find a way to keep the ban in the downtown area.

Throngs of people walking through the narrow streets of Amsterdam
Amsterdam's Red Light District may soon be without sex workers and coffee shops, after years of overtourism Image: Imago Images/Pro Shots

In addition, the city authorities want to gradually shutter the famous windows of the red-light district, where sex workers pose for potential johns. In the future, an erotic center outside the city center will house the prostitutes. The no less famous coffee shops are also to be allowed to sell cannabis only to locals in order to keep the "stoner tourists" away.

But many Amsterdammers criticize the new measures. They fear that they would take away the city's cosmopolitan atmosphere. A large number of sex workers also worry about a lack of customers if they are driven out of the city center. A citizens' initiative is pushing for a different approach. The number of tourist overnight stays should be reduced to 12 million annually. According to the petition, this would be the only way that "tourism could go hand in hand with the city's quality of life in the future." Over 30,000 Amsterdammers have already signed it. Now the city authorities will have to deal with the proposals.

Barcelona: Like never before?

In Barcelona, there are no plans for imposing any such restrictions. On the contrary, the Catalan capital is currently advertising for tourists to come back with the slogan "Barcelona like never before." From now on, the city wants to see itself even more as a sustainable cultural destination and thus attract "quality tourism" to the city, its tourism marketing department writes. "Barcelona wants to move away from the crowds and invite its visitors to stroll through open, green and accessible spaces," the statement says. It doesn't say how exactly that goal will curb mass tourism in the future.

But Barcelona has not been idle either during the pandemic and has adopted concrete measures. Even before the pandemic, the city had one of the strictest rules for tourist accommodation. Hotels and guesthouses are no longer granted licenses in the city center. And short-term rentals are also strictly regulated. In February, the city authorities tightened the rules again. Owners are only allowed to rent out rooms in their own apartments if the guest stays for at least 30 days. Since very few tourists do that, the measure is tantamount to a ban on short-term rentals.

Barcelona's Ramblas pedestrian boulevard packed with people milling around
In recent years Barcelona's Ramblas were full, but the pandemic sped up the city's efforts to curb mass tourismImage: Getty Images/D. Ramos

In addition, tour buses carrying day-trippers from the Costa Brava, for example, are to arrive outside the city center in the future. Travelers will also receive more information about attractions away from the "must-sees." Projects such as the new "Check Barcelona" app will also help. Similar to Venice, Barcelona wants to rely even more on digitalization to guide visitors. For example, the new app shows users where it is currently crowded and suggests a less busy place. In addition, tickets can be booked directly in the app, which could reduce waiting times at the famous sights.

Whether all this is enough for a real change for the better remains questionable. Soon, the residents of Barcelona will have to give part of their city back to the tourists. Relaxed strolling on the Ramblas could then once again become an obstacle course. And they will probably also have to queue up again at the Sagrada Familia. During the months of the pandemic, they had Antoni Gaudí's unfinished cathedral all to themselves and didn't have to pay admission. On May 29, the Sagrada Familia reopened to tourists.