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Why Some Cities Don't Like Tourists

Leonid Bershidsky is a Bloomberg View columnist. He was the founding editor of the Russian business daily Vedomosti and founded the opinion website Slon.ru.
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Cities like Barcelona, Berlin, Lisbon and Hong Kong, which only became major tourist destinations in the last couple of decades, are starting to look for ways to keep visitors out. This isn't about xenophobia: It's a protest against the changing nature of tourism.

In Barcelona, leftist mayor Ada Colau has advocated a cap on the number of tourists in the city, the world's 11th biggest destination for overnight visitors last year, drawing 7.37 million of them -- more than four times the city's population. Colau only ended up introducing a one-year moratorium on new tourist accommodation licenses, due to opposition from the national government. Even so, that created uncertainty for 30 still-unlicensed hotel, hostel and bed-and-breakfast projects under way in the city. Short-term rentals, through services such as Airbnb, are already illegal in Barcelona.

In Lisbon, a rising European destination expected to receive 3.6 million overnight foreign visitors this year (about 6.5 times its resident population), local officials like what Colau has done for Barcelona. A group called "People Live Here" advocates for protecting locals against the flood of tourists.

In Berlin, which received 4.5 million foreign overnight visitors last year (a million more than its population), anti-tourist sentiment has festered for years. There have been protests, and some clubs and bars make foreigners feel unwelcome. Airbnb is illegal, even if widely used in practice.

Meanwhile, in Hong Kong -- the world's ninth-biggest tourist destination, with 8.84 million overnight international visitors last year (about 1.7 million more than its population -- there has been a strong backlash against the flood of tourists from mainland China.

One could put such hostility down to these cities' relative lack of experience with tourist overflow. Parisians, for example, are philosophical about their 15.57 million annual visitors, a figure second only to London and Bangkok, and are enterprising about making money from them. The French authorities fight Uber to the death, but they're unlikely to outlaw Airbnb, the Uber of the hospitality business -- even if city officials do sometimes crack down on the hosts.

But this growing hostility can't be explained by growing pains alone. Today's urban tourism is also more intrusive than it used to be. "New urban tourists," as researchers call them, can no longer be railroaded into parts of town especially meant for them, known as tourist "bubbles" or "enclaves": Gaze at a cathedral on your right, check out the palace on your left, see some art, eat at a tourist restaurant, sleep in a hotel, go away. Today, tourists are often looking for "authentic," or "off the beaten track" experiences. Entire industries are devoted to creating the illusion of such authenticity. Tourists show up where ordinary people live and make contact, often surprised that locals in a blue-collar area had never felt the need to learn English.

Some Berlin pubs used to put signs in their windows saying: "There are no lattes here." The goal was to keep tourists out, but the signs may just have made these venues more attractive to people in search of authenticity. "The sought-after imaginary of urbanity is often connected to former working-class and post-industrial inner-city neighborhoods," Henning Fueller and Boris Michel wrote in a 2014 paper on tourism in Berlin's bohemian area, Kreuzberg, which in 2010 banned the opening of new hostels, much as Colau has done in Barcelona.

Once the tourists show up, however, gentrification soon sets in. The causality here is not certain: It could be that the visitors want the local color to be safe, preferring to hang out in areas that are already gentrifying; or it could be that local businesses and landlords spot the upturn in visitor numbers and start catering to them. Yet to locals, there is a clear connection between rising tourist numbers and upswings in housing costs, as well as the replacement of their favorite haunts with upscale cafes, wine bars and hipster gastropubs.

There's nothing visitors can do to look like locals in foreign cities, especially where they don't speak the language. All they can do is to be as quiet and respectful as possible, while burrowing down into the local life. This includes not flashing cash and spending only as much as locals would, to keep neighborhood ecosystems intact.

In other words, travelers need to behave as they do their our own neighborhoods -- like neighbors, rather than tourists.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

To contact the author on this story:
Leonid Bershidsky at lbershidsky@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor on this story:
Marc Champion at mchampion7@bloomberg.net