Q&A: COVID has cut mass tourism – and some cities want it to be


When the COVID-19 pandemic hit in 2020, cities that typically received thousands of tourists a day got a taste of life without mass tourism – and some of them don’t want all of those people coming back.

A gradual post-pandemic reopening gives many popular destinations the opportunity to try new methods. Venice, long in the grip of overtourism, has banned large cruise ships to enter its waters. The people of Amsterdam feel like they are “have recovered their city”And the city council launched an online advertising campaign encouraging visitors to enjoy the city’s culture, but warning of“ nuisance tourists ”- especially the large bachelor parties that previously flocked to the neighborhood Amsterdam red. Maui lawmakers seek to impose a tourist tax, offering a 3% tax for visitors staying in hotels and short-term rentals, and the mayor of the island is advocate with airlines to schedule fewer flights.

Each idea aims, in one way or another, to balance the income that tourists so badly need with the damage that huge crowds can do to natural or historic places and to the needs of a city’s own inhabitants. We asked Jessica Sewell, associate professor of urban and environmental planning at the University of Virginia School of Architecture, how cities can balance these needs in a post-pandemic reset.

Sewell’s research explores the links between culture and urban design. Among many projects, she works with AVU Institute of Advanced Technology in the Humanities on a digital Guide to the urban cultural landscapes of Suzhou, China, where she taught at Xi’an Jiaotong-Liverpool University. The guide aims to provide cultural and historical context for those visiting Suzhou, a major tourist destination in China that is home to several UNESCO World Heritage gardens.

Here’s what she had to say on some of the issues surrounding post-pandemic tourism.

Q. As cities reopen to tourists, what questions could they ask themselves to promote responsible tourism? What does it look like?

A. One thing to think about is ways to promote tourism that keeps people in one place for a while. “Bucket list” tourism – zooming in to quickly reach a few popular sites and then back out again – does a lot of damage to a city like Venice or Florence. It doesn’t make as much money for the local economy as people may not stay put, or not stay long enough to eat many meals or buy many groceries.

My colleague in China, Christian Nolf, worked on the idea of ​​slow tourism. Suzhou is a huge tourist attraction, but people tend to frequent the same places, mainly classical gardens and historic Pingjiang Street. These places are absolutely crowded, but other parts of the city do not attract the same number of visitors and do not benefit economically. Cities should be thinking about how to get people to slow down and really experience a place – not just its popular hot spots, but other neighborhoods and smaller attractions. Often times the little things you find when walking around a city are even more memorable than the big, famous landmarks.

Q. How can cities balance preserving the places and cultures that make them distinctive with welcoming people to visit those places?

A. It is not easy to answer. This is a really difficult conundrum, made worse by the fact that many attractions have to use tourists’ money to pay for their own preservation. I think it’s important to try and expand tourism over a longer period of time, using things like timed tickets and reservations. Lots of places that hadn’t used timed tickets before using them during COVID for crowd control. I expect many will continue, as this helps alleviate the ill effects of large crowds. The simple act of distributing people, physically and in time, helps reduce wear and tear.

Q. What other ideas arose in your work in Suzhou?

A. China is in the process of shifting from mass tourism – usually involving large bus tours – to more individual and independent tourism. This shift is part of a larger cultural shift from a more collective mindset to a more individual mindset, influenced by the large number of middle and upper class Chinese who travel or study abroad. and see other ways of doing things. This provides opportunities for Chinese attractions to change their approach to tourism.

Some villages have started charging visitors entrance fees, which is an interesting method, although I’m not sure it’s ideal. This prevents these cities from depending on the sale of tourist products, such as souvenirs or tickets to particular sites. It also distributes the money around the city, rather than keeping the money tied to particular sites or attractions. This could help support local businesses and bring some benefits to residents.

Q. What role do short-term rental companies like Airbnb play in these debates?

A. Short-term rentals like Airbnb have many positive aspects. Sometimes it is the locals who own a home, and the rental income helps support them and the local economy. It also promotes a kind of slow tourism, making people stay longer and spend their money in neighborhoods. This can be problematic, of course, if it is particularly disrupting a neighborhood or adding stress to the local housing market. I think that might say more about the evils of the housing market, however, than it does about Airbnb.

I think a bigger problem for many big cities is when very wealthy people buy apartments in multiple places and don’t spend a lot of time there. In some big cities, like New York or Paris, you can find neighborhoods that look like they are inhabited, but can no longer support a local grocery store or business because so many people who own a property there are not there. do not live. It can really empty a city.

Q. If you were to advise cities concerned about the impact of returning tourism after the pandemic, what questions would you raise?

A. First of all, I would ask, “What is your ideal? »You don’t want tourists? Do you want only a small number or a certain number of tourists? Where do you want these people to be? How can you make it a better place for them to stay longer, rather than zooming in and out? How can you change the way people relate to your city?

Amsterdam is a good example. They said they didn’t want as much singles tourism. How to change the environment to discourage this type of tourism while welcoming other tourists? What kind of tourists do you really want?

It is also important to consider transportation. How many buses do you really want to let in? Do you really want to have these big cruise ships? Idling buses or large ships in a port can actually be much more destructive to a place than the people in it. So I would advise cities to think about how they transport people through spaces. Can they park buses and cars elsewhere and take tourists on a tram line? Can they create spaces where people walk and move slowly through the streets, building a different relationship with a place than they would in a bus or a car?

Finally, you need to think about what else is affecting your residents. How can you ensure that affordable housing options remain available? Do you have enough places for people to shop and get what they need to live in your city? How to make your city a pleasant place to live and visit? Often planning policies that have nothing to do with tourism, such as housing policies, can make a huge difference.


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