Crowding Out the Locals: Are Weekend Trips Ruining Europe's Cities?
Short city trips have become a national pastime for Germans and other Europeans. But the things that delight tourists elicit groans from locals in cities like Berlin, Prague and Barcelona. With residents under pressure, protests are growing.
There are plenty of ways to make a bad impression in foreign countries. Martin, a 24-year-old from California, has chosen one of the most proven approaches. The fun-loving member of the United States military is drinking his way through Europe this summer. He has nothing but rave reviews about his trip so far.
He's partied in the streets of Barcelona, in a vacation apartment on the island of Ibiza and on a party boat. He is leaving for Prague tomorrow morning to party some more, but before then he plans to party his way through Berlin as part of a guided pub crawl. He's wearing shoes with flashing lights and has already had four beers and two shots of tequila to get himself into the mood.
The excursion, billed on the Internet as the Original Berlin Pub Crawl, consists of guided drinking in three pubs and one club. The pub crawl starts every evening at 10 p.m. at a hostel near Alexanderplatz. Participants receive a free shot of hard liquor for every beer or cocktail they drink, and in the second bar the local guides pour peppermint schnapps directly from the bottle into their mouths. The organizer, an Irish businessman based in Berlin, offers similar tours in 12 other European cities.
The group is relatively small on this Monday -- small meaning 80 people. On weekends, the group can consist of up to 200 people. They include underage Britons who drink cheap vodka while traveling from one pub to the next; Americans thrilled by the fact that drinking alcohol in the streets is allowed in Europe; and three tattooed Germans from the state of Saxony involved a burping contest. When an older woman walks by in the Alexanderplatz subway station, one of them shouts "pussy" and "nice ass" at her. People of the world, come to Berlin to go binge-drinking.
'It's a Nightmare!'
The group is in top form in the subway. They all crowd into the same car, where they begin hopping around and caterwauling, until the car begins to sway. "Olé, olé, olé, olé" is their most harmless chant. Soccer fans are angels compared to these people. It is events like these that cement Berlin's reputation as a party town -- and simultaneously damage the city's image. "This is precisely the sort of recreational activity that we don't want," says Berlin tourism chief Burkhard Kieker. "It's a nightmare."
Tourists are conquerors who disguise themselves as friends, which often makes them difficult to deal with, no matter how much money they spend. Ever since short trips to nearby or faraway cities have become a national pastime, city dwellers around the globe have complained about the growing inhospitality of their cities. They feel overwhelmed and stretched too thin.
The business of city trips is flourishing, from Asia to South America. In Europe, the number of booked trips to cities grew by almost 40 percent from 2005 to 2014. German cities like Munich have seen even larger increases in visitors. Even companies like coffee retailer Tchibo and grocery discounter Aldi have gotten into the travel business.
The hype is fueled by companies like Airbnb, which provide additional lodgings in an already overheated market. The number of available places to stay is especially high in Paris, where there are already half as many vacation apartments as hotel rooms.
Things are moving -- for travelers, the travel industry and providers of lodgings. But local residents are groaning, especially in densely populated Europe, where attractions are often concentrated in an area of a few square kilometers, in cities like Barcelona, Prague and Salzburg. Tourist destinations perceive the crowds of tourists as an affliction. Residents are fleeing, and businesses like bakeries and grocery stores are disappearing along with them, replaced by souvenir shops and currency exchanges. Downtown neighborhoods are becoming desolate.
The conditions German writer Hans Magnus Enzensberger warned against in his treatise "A Theory of Tourism" almost 60 years ago are becoming reality. Enzensberger argued that travelers, through their mere presence, threaten or destroy what they are actually seeking: originality and local color.
To echo what the porcupine said to the wheezing hare in the fable, Enzensberger wrote, "tourism anticipates its refutation." In fact, this dialectic is the "engine of its development." The visitor sets out on a search for new thrills and attractions, and when he reaches his destination, he immediately deprives it of its mystique. This is why he is constantly searching for unknown destinations and sensations.
Venice is an example of a city that has lost its magic. Since 1980, the population has shrunk from 120,000 to only 60,000. In return, 80,000 individual and cruise-ship tourists visit the city of canals and lagoons every day. Venice, the respected Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung newspaper recently wrote, has been largely "mummified" and mutated into a "walkable postcard landscape."
Loss of Identity
To protect their city from a similar fate, residents of European cities are rebelling. At the forefront are the people of Barcelona, whose tourism boom began with the 1992 Olympic Games. The capital of the Catalonia region reinvented itself for the global event. City planners and architects built futuristic buildings and created a long, sandy beach that turned the fishing community of Barceloneta into a playground.
Restaurants on the boardwalk display neon-lit signs of mussels and chicken over rice. But beyond the beach, in the narrow streets of Barceloneta, residents protest against the crowds of tourists by hanging the district's flag from their windows, an image of a sailboat and a lighthouse on a blue-and-yellow background, along with banners with slogans like: "No Tourist Apartments!" There have been repeated demonstrations over the years, starting in 2014, when three naked Italians strolled into a supermarket, presumably tourists staying in vacation apartments.
But there is hope, and it is fueled by people like Ada Colau. The 42-year-old developed a reputation as an activist and figurehead of the squatter community. She was elected mayor of Barcelona more than a year ago. Mass tourism is her biggest issue. Colau has promised citizens to recapture the city for them.
It's mid-June, a morning in city hall, Colau's office. The furniture and the Miró painting on the wall are from her predecessor. Colau brought along the black-and-white photos of famous female Spaniards: the country's first female cabinet minister, a female writer, a concentration camp survivor. They are all her role models. Colau came to work late today, because she spent an hour talking about Barcelona's future to 10-year-olds at her son's school. The children were most interested in the refugees living in the city, she says. They also asked about tourism, because they are confronted with it every day.
The school is near the Sagrada Familía church, the city's most-visited structure. Colau lives in the same neighborhood. The apartments in the building next door to hers are all rented to vacationers. Colau gets to know some of them in person, when they block her building's front door with their suitcases or ring her doorbell by mistake.
"In the old city, the number of tourist beds is now three times as high as the number of residents," says Colau. "And then there is the loss of identity. If I want to get together with someone near my apartment, it's difficult to find a cozy pub that reflects the atmosphere of the neighborhood. Most are now parts of large chains with no character of their own."
The tourists truly become an ordeal on La Rambla, Barcelona's tree-lined pedestrian mall. "I used to go for walks there with my family. Today locals avoid this street, because it's become too touristy for them. Thousands of people live along La Rambla, and several million tourists join them every year. That's incredible," says Colau. The city has started to organize events for its residents, to strengthen their cohesion and deter them from moving away.
Her supporters see Colau as an avenger of the oppressed. But she is hated by those who make their money with tourism. Shortly after taking office, Colau imposed a one-year moratorium on 30 planned hotel projects. The city has also put a hold on issuing permits for new tourist apartments.
Enrique Alcántara, 42, refuses to put up with this. He's the chairman of Apartur, an association of providers of about 7,000 of the 10,000 vacation apartments that are officially rented to tourists in Barcelona. There are likely a few thousand more, when the illegal apartments are included, but he is quick to point out that he has nothing to do with them.
Alcántara places a small white box on the conference table of his office in downtown Barcelona, like a warrior presenting his weapons for the next battle. It is no longer a question of whether the tourists are a nuisance, but of how much. The little box is supposed to answer that question, by measuring noise levels in the environment. Alcántara has linked it to his smartphone. An app depicts a curve that reflects the noise level: minimal, moderate, or high.
Since April, these noise-measuring devices have been installed in thousands of vacation apartments. They enable city officials to intervene when the temporary tenants get carried away -- or prove how quiet they are. "Every Catalan family is louder," says Alcántara, "including mine." He himself is on the quiet side for a Catalan -- too quiet, say some members of Apartur, who would like to see their top representatives be more combative. "We are victims," says one person who has rented apartments to tourists for years. "Keep in mind that tourism accounts for 13 percent of Barcelona's revenues!"
In the 1950s, when Enzensberger wrote his essay about the essence of tourism, multi-day excursions to European cities were still the privilege of the moneyed class. Visitors arrived by car or train, with only a few able to afford flying. Tourists were mainly interested in seeing noteworthy cultural and architectural sights. Shopping and drinking were secondary.
City tourism became a mass phenomenon in the 1980s. Rising incomes led to a new trend, the second trip, which was distinct from the main annual vacation to the beach or the mountains. New airlines like Ryanair and Easyjet began to revolutionize aviation, accompanied by the derision of traditional airlines like Lufthansa and Air France. Tickets were now available for the price of a taxi ride. The discount airlines brought new customer groups to hotels and bed-and-breakfasts, especially young people. Suddenly their pocket money was enough to get them farther away from home than ever before.
Today the price cutters of the air have a share of more than 40 percent of aviation in Europe, a number that it is likely to increase significantly. Lufthansa stopped making fun of discounters long ago, instead entering the fast-paced business with its new budget brand, Eurowings, because it cannot afford to lose this important customer segment.
The budget carriers play a key role in determining where the flow of tourists will go next, by adding new, previously expensive destinations to their flight schedules. Current examples are Geneva and Toulouse, which used to be expensive destinations for travelers from Germany. Now tickets can be had for as little as €50 ($55).