How many tourists are too many?

by The Listener / 09 January, 2017
Photo/Getty Images

Barcelona, famed for its architecture and history, is one of the world’s premier tourist destinations. But the city is in something of a cold war with the visitors who crowd its streets, throng around the iconic Sagrada Família and pack its beaches.

The city worked hard to attract tourists after hosting the 1992 Olympics, building cruise docks and cleaning up beaches and streets. It worked: these days, eight million people visit each year, accounting for about 14% of the city’s jobs and 10-12% of its economic activity.

But Barcelona has become a victim of its own beauty and vitality. Locals feel pushed out of their own neighbourhoods, complain of skyrocketing rents and object to the drunken antics of visiting revellers. The mayor, Ada Colau Ballano, has pushed back, declaring a freeze on the construction of new hotels and a crackdown on illegal tourist apartments. She fears her city is turning into a “theme park”.

Anti-tourism sentiment has also emerged in hotspots such as Berlin, Lisbon, Hong Kong and Venice, as international travel has become a cheap commodity. ­According to the International Air Transport ­Association, the average international fare is now 60% cheaper in real terms than it was 20 years ago.

The New Zealand tourism sector will resist the comparison, but these cities can teach us salutary lessons. ­Barcelona faces another record-­breaking season and the prospect of 4.5 million international tourists by 2022 – and the possibility of seven million if the double-digit growth of the past two years continues.

The tourists don’t come to New Zealand for the ­architectural wonders of our cities. They come for the wild places and beautiful landscape that New Zealanders cherish as part of their identity.

The surge in tourist numbers has fed nicely into the New ­Zealand story of a vibrant economy in a world of lacklustre growth. Tourism supports 332,000 jobs and accounts for more than 10% of GDP, taking into account indirect impacts. Foreign visitors bring in $14.5 billion in earnings.

All good, then? Not if you are a teacher, nurse, firefighter or restaurant worker needing to find an affordable place to live in Queenstown, where the average house in a town with a ­permanent population of just 14,300 costs $1 million. Not if you live near a spot favoured by freedom campers and object to the litter and human waste left behind. Not if you value the ­opportunity to take your family to some of our more accessible places of ­natural splendour and find yourself crowded out.

Free and open access to the outdoors is central to the New Zealand way of life, but the boom in international tourism challenges that ethos. Tourism, just like dairying, forestry and fishing, has limits.

The beauty and diversity of our ­landscapes may feel infinite, but their capacity to tolerate unlimited ­numbers of people ­walking, camping, driving and ­excreting is not.

Countries with far more developed tourism sectors are familiar with these pressures, and in many cases have responded with controls and taxes. One can’t simply turn up to the prehistoric cave paintings of central France and expect to wander through: the authorities have recognised these treasures are priceless, and visits are limited to expensive small guided groups. If you want to raft the Grand Canyon, be prepared to wait in the queue for years for a permit.

Our current tourist season should be a time for serious reflection for the industry, Government and residents. How many visitors are too many? To what extent are we prepared to shift from the tradition of free access to the outdoors to a regime of capped numbers and fees? Where might such limits be needed? Are our tourists paying the true price of the “freedom” and natural experience we invite them to enjoy, given the impact they have? And at what point might their freedom affect those of us for whom this country is a deeply loved home?

None of these questions is simple. And growth begets growth. As tourist numbers have risen, so too have the numbers of ­businesses reliant on that growth, which makes talk of new charges or limits challenging.

Tourism has the power to transform rundown regions and ­revitalise towns – that’s what it did to Kaikoura before the ­earthquake, and will surely do again. But, as Barcelona has found, it can also generate a backlash from those who feel their homes have been invaded. We need to make 2017 the year we start talking honestly about tourism, and what we, as New Zealanders, want from it.

For more on the tourism boom and its implications for New Zealanders, read 'Peak Paradise' in the latest issue of the New Zealand Listener.

This article was first published in the January 14, 2017 issue of the Listener. Follow the Listener on Twitter, Facebook and sign up to the weekly newsletter.

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