Pandemic-induced travel restrictions have had a tremendous impact on countries where tourism is of key importance to the economy. Counterintuitively, not all impact has been negative. For countries and cities that were experiencing overcrowding in some of their most popular sites, lockdowns and travel restrictions have allowed them to breathe a sigh of relief. Locals have finally been able to relax in their own backyard without being trampled by tourists.
Prior to the pandemic, many cities had struggled with overcrowding. For instance, Barcelona’s city council had reported 9.5 million overnight tourists in 2019 – a number that does not include cruise passengers visiting Barcelona for only a day. The 1.6 million locals were being outnumbered nearly six to one by multi-day visitors. Despite 12% of Barcelona’s GDP originating from tourism, locals were questioning whether the financial benefits were worth it long before the pandemic. Lisa Berardi, an American living in Barcelona, wrote in 2020 that tourism “essentially [acted] as cultural deforestation, choking out the physical spaces in which local communities can congregate.”
The first anti-tourism protest in Barcelona occurred in 2014, when some of the locals near the beachfront were protesting against the loud parties thrown by tourists and illegal holiday rental properties. Protests grew in number as many of Barcelona’s neighbourhoods became gentrified; locals were being pushed out from their own hometowns due to skyrocketing prices. Moreover, illegal Airbnbs prevented locals from finding reasonably priced accommodation. In response to these protests, Barcelona’s authorities stopped issuing new licences to hotels and began regulating rental platforms such as Airbnb. An airport expansion was cancelled, and the number of cruises allowed to dock in Barcelona’s port was restricted.
Then came the pandemic. Spain enforced one of the strictest national lockdowns in the world, which cut tourism more effectively than five years of legislation. Tourists fled the country, and for 8 weeks, locals were forbidden to leave their homes except to buy essentials. Once restrictions began to be lifted, the locals re-emerged but the tourists were missing. In the hope of attracting business, tourist attractions and restaurants adapted accordingly. The latter swapped their English menus for menus more appealing to local tastes; popular tourist destinations attempted to lure locals in with discounts.
Having witnessed their city practically void of tourists, locals and authorities have gained motivation to protect Barcelona from overcrowding. Living in one of the most visited cities in the world, Barcelona’s residents will always have to coexist with tourists. However, the pandemic has encouraged local authorities to prioritise local businesses, regulate holiday rentals and address workers’ rights by creating opportunities for them to earn a living wage. For example, last summer, Barcelona introduced a new tax on stays in tourist accommodations, which goes towards the local government and could raise 16.5 million euros annually. Efforts are also placed on diversifying the type of tourism that Barcelona encourages. There are hopes that Barcelona will focus on attracting tourists interested in the city’s culture as well as looking towards business, educational and medical tourism. Thus, the pandemic has further encouraged the city’s council to diversify its economy and be less reliant on tourism.
Other cities and countries are experiencing similar changes. For Hawaii, the pandemic brought economic struggle by aggravating its strong dependence on tourism. When travel restrictions were enforced, local authorities began to call for a diversification of Hawaii’s industries, less reliance on tourism, and more consideration of their local communities and wildlife. In Amsterdam, Georganiseerd Bedrijfsleven Amsterdam – a group of eight business organisations – are campaigning to ban Airbnb from the city. Efforts to change the profile of tourists they attract are taking place all over Europe. Councillors of tourism in Amsterdam, Barcelona, Florence and Prague are attempting to change the way they promote their city by limiting visits where tourists spend little money and focus on partying rather than visiting culturally significant places. This involves Amsterdam banning tourists from cannabis cafes and moving their sex workers to an “erotic centre” away from the city centre, according to the BBC and the Guardian.
Generally, the pandemic has left tourist hotspots with the opportunity to start afresh. With very few tourists visiting during the first months of the pandemic due to restrictions, they had the opportunity to easily enforce changes like stricter regulations of holiday accommodations and prioritise locals. With travel restrictions progressively easing, the question is whether these efforts will persevere and be able to bear fruit.