Nothing to see here: Popular European destinations want fewer tourists


A view of the village of Hallstatt, Austria. (Alex Halada/AFP/Getty Images)

August 8

Hotel owner Verena Lobisser says tourists visiting her village, on the edge of a glassy lake tucked into the Austrian Alps, regularly stop her and ask her to pose for pictures.

Sepp Krumböck, who runs a boat rental outfit, recalls the morning he realized that a camera-equipped drone was hovering next to his bedroom window.

Other residents tell stories of tourists who let themselves into private timber-framed homes to have a look around or use the toilet.

“It’s a catastrophe,” Lobisser said. “Many visitors seriously think this is a theme park.”

That’s a sentiment shared in cities and towns across Europe. Some of the world’s top destinations say they are confronted with an influx that has exploded beyond what they can handle. Even in places where the local economy is largely dependent on tourism, resistance is growing — and there are burgeoning efforts to keep people away.

After the collision of a cruise ship and a smaller tourist boat in Venice in June, Italy’s transport minister announced Wednesday that cruise ships would be rerouted away from the city center “to avoid witnessing more invasions … by these floating palaces, with the scandals and risks they bring.” Venice (25 million annual visitors) also has said it will introduce an “entrance fee” next year of up to $11 for day trippers. (A tourist tax is already included in hotel fees for those who stay overnight.)

The Belgian city of Bruges (8 million visitors) plans to limit the number of cruise ships allowed to dock there. Residents of the Spanish island of Mallorca (10 million visitors) have petitioned to do the same.


Calls to limit cruise ships increased after a July collision between a cruise ship and smaller tour boat outside Venice. (Andrea Pattaro/AFP/Getty Images)

Barcelona (30 million visitors) has banned new hotels in the city center and limited the size of groups allowed in its La Boqueria market.

Amsterdam (19 million visitors) has been especially aggressive. It has banned new hotels and tourist shops, increased its hotel tax, and imposed on-the-spot fines for public urination or drunkenness. Next year, it will put an end to tours of the red-light district.

Hallstatt may not have the same name recognition as Venice or Amsterdam. But if you Google “Austria,” the village dominates the images that pop up. It looks a lot like Arendelle in Disney’s “Frozen,” with the bell tower of a Lutheran church standing in for the central tower of Queen Elsa’s castle.

A salt-mining town dating from the late Bronze Age, and a UNESCO World Heritage site since 1997, Hallstatt has become especially popular among travelers from Asia.

The hype began with a 2006 South Korean TV series, “Spring Waltz,” that was partially shot in Hallstatt.

Six years later, the China Minmetals mining company opened a life-size replica of Hallstatt in the southern Chinese province of Guangdong . The company even mimicked Hallstatt’s central church, although the Chinese version contains a banquet hall. Residents of the real Hallstatt, who hadn’t been consulted on the project, were stunned when they learned of it.


Visitors take pictures at a replica of the Austrian town of Hallstatt, in China’s Guangdong province. (Vincent Yu/AP)

Now, filmmakers, journalists and tourists come to Hallstatt in droves. The town, with a population of about 800, drew 1 million visitors last year.

Howard Zhao, 19, a student from Hong Kong, said he decided to make the trip to Hallstatt after seeing photos on social media.

“It’s so beautiful,” said Zhao, who had already managed to post a video of the village on Instagram within minutes of arriving. Next, he was planning to go live on social media to show his followers around the village.

Hallstatt could have shared the fate of many picturesque but economically depressed European towns. Only a decade ago, young residents were moving away in droves, while older generations stayed behind.

The tourism boom changed everything.

Ten years ago, said Mayor Alexander Scheutz, Hallstatt was considered a summer destination, and its tourism industry was forced into hibernation each winter. “Now, visitors come all year, which means that companies can stay open, too,” the mayor said. 

As one would expect, the mass arrival has been embraced by those who profit most directly from it, including souvenir vendors, food stand owners and boatmen.

Krumböck, the businessman, acknowledges that Hallstatt now has “a lot more money” than it used to have. “I have no problem with the influx” of people, he said.

But other residents say the sudden jump in tourism has come at a cost.

“For locals here, everything has gotten more expensive,” said Karl Gruber, 67, a pensioner who has lived here his whole life.

Residents also take issue with how many people hurry past the nearly empty village museum, briefly take in the sites and then leave.

“Hallstatt is Instagram-able,” said Friedrich Idam, a local architect and building conservationist. “So, many tourists only come here to quickly snap one or two photos and that’s it.”


A tourist takes a photo in Hallstatt, Austria. (Lisi Niesner/Reuters)

As a result of the backlash, the mayor has agreed to test a proposal to reduce tour bus access by requiring companies to book ahead and limiting the slots available. Hallstatt had 19,344 tour buses last year — the goal would be to reduce that by a third.

The plan is modeled after one in Salzburg.

Few of the various efforts to curb and control tourism are without controversy.

Cities can provide fewer parking spaces for buses or docks for cruise ships, but there are limits to how far they want to and legally can go to stop more visitors from coming. 

“A core principle of liberal democracies is the freedom of movement,” tourism researcher Torsten Kirstges said. That is especially the case in Europe, which enshrined free movement for European citizens in the 1985 Schengen Agreement and has chafed against travel restrictions since the fall of the Berlin Wall and the dismantling of divisions between east and west.

Other proposals — such as increasing accommodation and travel costs for tourists — could make “trips to certain destinations once again elitist, which would mean a backslide into the 19th century,” said Jürgen Schmude, a researcher at the University of Munich.

Instead, researchers encourage fines, awareness campaigns and strategies for better managing the flow of tourists.

Amsterdam, for instance, has begun advertising a nearby beach to divert tourists away from the city center. It also launched an “enjoy and respect” campaign, reminding visitors to be on good behavior — and warning of fines if they are not.

Hallstatt has likewise erected official metal signs reminding visitors of the rules and possible fines.

“Hallstatt is no museum,” reads one.

“Please do not enter local houses and gardens unless specifically invited,” says another.

Idam, the building conservationist, advocates for a more sustainable tourism approach, which would favor longer-term tourists over day visitors, if necessary with stricter measures to curb access.

“I’m not a fast-food chain,” agreed hotel and restaurant owner Lobisser, who described the type of tourist she is trying to attract as interested in both “nature and culture.”

Meanwhile, even if residents aren’t able to reclaim their town, they are trying to reclaim aspects of what life was once like there.

Instead of the old village center, locals now head to a new weekly farmers market on the outskirts — away from the busy tourist routes and largely unadvertised.

The market, said Siegrid Brader, 56, as she was cleaning up a nearby seating area, was an affordable, alternative source of fresh produce. But perhaps more important, it re-created something that had been lost: a sense of belonging for a small community that fears it is being torn apart by its new global fame.

Source

Devi Prasad

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