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Impact of Tourism in the Italian Art Cities: Venice, Flo...

Impact of Tourism in the Italian Art Cities: Venice, Florence, & Rome

Il Bel Paese, the Beautiful Country, is distinctly used to describe Italy. It is indeed a gifted country, with a notable natural environment, a mild climate and a prominent cultural heritage. Therefore, its status among the most visited countries not only in Europe, but worldwide, is not a surprise. Tourists arrive to admire the artwork of Michelangelo and Da

Il Bel Paese, the Beautiful Country, is distinctly used to describe Italy. It is indeed a gifted country, with a notable natural environment, a mild climate and a prominent cultural heritage. Therefore, its status among the most visited countries not only in Europe, but worldwide, is not a surprise. Tourists arrive to admire the artwork of Michelangelo and Da Vinci, to swim in the beaches of Sardine and Sicily, and to be part of the unique atmosphere of its “art cities.” However, in regards to the everyday life of the residents, are there negative impacts of massive urban tourism?

Among the Italian cities, Venice is probably the most suitable to serve as an example and response to this question. In the historic center, the absurd proportion of 353 tourists per resident gives the impression of a city that serves more as a monument-attraction, and less as a real living space. Among the visitors, a significant number are single day excursionists, or participants of cruises who only take a quick look at the canals and narrow roads, and return to their ship without contributing to the city’s economy. The touristic invasion, in combination with the flooding problem that continues to worsen, has led to an abandonment of the city center by the residents moving to other regions around the island.

The promenade near the ducal palace of Venice, everyday crowded by visitors, Venice, Italy

In comparison to the specific situation of Venice, similar issues are presented for historic centers of other “art cities.” Rome, which is naturally the most visited city in Italy, welcomes approximately twelve million tourists every year. A 2010 study by Sapienza University of Rome showed that the authentic character of the city is in danger of alteration, due to low quality facilities that represent a "fast" tourism. The overcrowding of the city center of Florence by tourists also seems to be a constant cause of stress for its inhabitants, as indicated by a 2012 study published in the journal Tourism Geographies.

Piazza della signoria, one of the most visited squares of Florence city center, Florence, Italy

Alteration of the historic urban grid and movement of residents are new threats to the cities’ sustainability. Recently the problem of massive tourism has become object of studies and proposals, towards both an environmental and social solution. One among them points out the need to support local brands and small businesses, in order to maintain the cities’ traditional qualities, and another the imposition of new eco-taxes relevant to the touristic facilities.

What should be our attitude as architects and urban designers towards the negative impacts of urban tourism, and what other proposals-initiatives could be introduced to both protect and highlight historic cities?

 Credits: Images by Marilena Mela. Data linked to sources.

Intern photo

Marilena Mela is an Architecture student at National Technical University of Athens, and is spending a semester abroad studying in the Architecture Faculty of the University of Florence, Italy. She is especially interested in the history of buildings...

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  • I live, and work, in Amsterdam in the famous Wallen-district; Red Light District.

    In the Amsterdam metro-area 5% of people are working in the (visiting) tourism industry. That’s relevant: 55.000 jobs. However, most jobs are at minimum wage, part time and only during high season. The other 95% of people in metro-area are working in government jobs, ICT, banking, trade and logistics.
    This is where ‘unbalance’ starts. The ‘footprint’ of the tourism industry is more than just 5%, certainly in the old Canal district of Amsterdam.

    Let me define unbalance from my personnel perspective first. Almost 80.000 people live in the historical Canal district in Amsterdam. On an average summer day 200.000 to 250.000 people visit this part Amsterdam for just several hours, a day or even better several days.
    I really enjoy seeing so many people having fun, sailing our beautiful canals, enjoying the historic houses and I meet a lot of inspiring people from all over the world right in front of my house. We make fun of every tourist trying the ride a rental bike for the first time. I love the sound of the big cruise ships entering the Passenger Terminal
    And, I also really enjoy long walks along the canals on quiet and cold Sunday morning in January of February.

    But, the news is not all positive… the side effects of more than 15 million visitors can be nasty. Illegal hotels, drugs dealers, pick pocketing, normal shops closing, garbage everywhere, money laundring and drunken and screaming people at night or on beer-bikes.

    Since tourism is now more profitable than the sex- or drugs-industry, today more than 25 percent of the houses in our district are rented out as (often, illegal) hotels and bed-and-breakfast during peak season. The home owners (renting out) are not interested in maintaining the old monuments in Amsterdam. Home owners associations face difficult times in financing the necessary paint and renovation jobs to keep the heritage alive.
    The problem is that home sharing is being done less and less often by nice people with good intentions. It’s been kidnapped by breezy real estate folks who rent out apartments non-stop to tourists by way of middlemen. Many of those who rent out the apartments pay no taxes on what they earn. After many complaints about noise and safety, government is taking strong action against these illegal hotels.

    Local shops disappear one-by-one. In my district the last normal ‘baker’ and ‘barber’ stopped last year. From October till March only a few people visit the Canal district. If August is 100%, off-season is just 20% of visitors. This makes it more difficult for local shops and bars to survive during the quiet off-season period. More than one out of two new stores and bars close within one year after opening…

    The focus on just quantity (the number of visitors) and focus on ‘fast tourism’ is leading to imbalances. With ongoing liberalization in the European touringcar sector (station-to-station) cost of coming to Amsterdam by bus is decreasing. Some experts say Amsterdam will get 30 to 40 percent more visitors in the next 5 years; low spending, visiting for a short period, focus on top 5 attractions only. Things will get worse.
    Visitors coming to Amsterdam today spend less money, than visitors to e.g. Milan, London or Paris. They sleep in cheaper accommodations outside Amsterdam, on board of cruise ships or simply visit Amsterdam for just a few hours by touringcar; ‘fast tourism’.

    I have ten suggestions to better deal with this unbalanced situation… but, there will be plenty more.

    1. Focus on the right visitors
    Visitors should spend more time and money in Amsterdam. Staying in one of the many beautiful hotels in the greater Amsterdam area is really creating sustainable jobs.
    With many exhibitions and trade shows we should encourage people to come early or stay a few days longer.
    How can we attract more visitors off-season? Big events like Grachtenfestival, Sail and Gay Pride are organized during peak season. We need more events off season like Bear Pride, sport events, Amsterdam Documentary Festival, Amsterdam Dance Festival and culinary events as well. Amsterdam is beautiful in December and January with the Amsterdam Light Festival.

    2. Invite respectful visitors
    Focus on tourist that really respect Amsterdam, its culture and its (international) residents. You can only enjoy Amsterdam if you stay here for at least 4 or 5 days. Tourist should show genuine interest in the rich and diverse history and both old and modern culture of Amsterdam. There is much more to enjoy than the Red Light District tour in 1 hour, a trip on a Hop-on-hop-off-bus in 2 hours or getting pissed drunk and stoned.

    3. Incentify the right tourist
    Maybe we should make a short stay in Amsterdam more expensive. Why are touring cars not paying toll for Amsterdam in summer or normal parking fees? Why don’t 90% of visitors pay their parking fine; bring back the wheel clamp. Less VAT on tickets for Canal tours on electrical boats? Ecotax for old taxi’s and tourincars? Sounds like a good plan.

    4. Come prepared
    Waiting two of three hours for Anne Frankhuis or Rijksmuseum is typical. The average tourist comes unprepared. If you buy tickets on line, you can queue-jump. We should also inform tourist about some ground rules; respect our diversity, don’t stand in our way, buy your tram ticket in advance, find a nice restaurant in Tripadvisor and use Google maps on your smartphone. I love the New York YouTube ‘you’re a yerk’…
    Maybe, Amsterdam should focus on the more experienced travelers only and not first time visitors.

    5. Only professional guides
    We need certified professional guides and clear rules for these guides (also for the maximum size of groups). Fast tourism in large groups in the Red Light District is leading to many complaints from both entrepreneurs and residents.

    6. Improve walkability
    Make our city more walkable and safe for bicycles. Banning cars and touringcars (and even bicycles in some parts of town during summer) would take the pressure off of our over crowded streets. Walking is core to ‘slow tourism’.

    7. Clean technology
    We need to focus on quiet and sustainable transportation on the canals and roads. Air pollution is a major problem in Amsterdam.
    More and more boats are now electrical or have cleantech engines on board. The same should happen with taxi’s and touringcars; zero emission!
    Keep old touringcars outside city centre. Only allow cleantech touringcars into town.

    8. Focus on residents
    Focus more on residents. The Amsterdam residents really make our city livable. Residents should be actively involved in urban planning and revitalization projects like Project 1012 in Amsterdam.

    9. Fight illegal hotels
    Government should fight short illegal hotels and bed-and-breakfast in residential areas like both Paris and Rome are doing. With Airbnb, and other providers in the sharing economy, it is really all about reputation, trust and allowing things to happen. But if the sharing economy is only going to lead to people dodging the taxes, the zoning plans and the regulations that normal business people in the sector have to deal with, something will need to be done.

    10. New hotels? Maybe…
    New hotels are needed, also in the Amsterdam Canal district. But, any new hotel should be developed ‘housing-neutral’. All new hotels should also result in an equal number of square meters in new houses and apartments created by the project developers.

    Not only in Amsterdam…
    Last Summer we visited Trier (D), Freiburg (D), Gent (B) and Colmar (F). After all the touringcars leave end of the afternoon, these towns become ghost towns. In Colmar, in the Alsace, no decent restaurants were open at night. In Gent, most restaurants are closed for several months in Winter. In Amsterdam, most Michelin-star restaurants close during July and August because the visitors prefer to have diner at Hard Rock Cafe.

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