As Barcelona has found, it’s possible for a city to have too many tourists

When they stop to commune with their selfie sticks, I don’t know whether to be proud or irritated

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The Independent Online

Yesterday, in London’s West End, I counted eight mammoth coaches at the end of the road. They were parked illegally on yellow lines; several had their engines running – illegal, too – and they blocked the left-hand-turn lane for a good distance, more than trebling the time it took for the city bus to clear the junction.

They have taken to parking there because the legal spaces nearby are full, and because the powers-that-be turn a blind eye. One way or another, it’s all money in the city coffers, isn’t it?

Entering Parliament Square, the queue to visit Westminster Abbey snaked far beyond the gate, a wait of more than an hour. At this time of year, there are main London thoroughfares – Whitehall and Oxford Street among them – where you can barely walk or breathe for people. It’s the same in every tourist town: Oxford, Cambridge, Edinburgh, York. Massive groups lumber along chaotically behind their tour leaders. When they stop, without warning, to commune with their selfie sticks, I don’t know whether to be proud that Britain is in such global demand. I can’t decide if I’m hopeful that their money might keep my taxes down, or irritated that their presence in such numbers makes it harder for residents to go about their business.

I plead guilty, of course, to hypocrisy in the first degree. Over the years, I have been welcomed as a visitor to other people’s countries and relished what they have to offer. Cheap air travel, the information revolution, the privilege of a First World passport, have all given me and my contemporaries unprecedented freedom  of the world. I luxuriated in the cosmopolitan benevolence of London during the Olympics, and it did the city a power of good.

But there are now places – Paris, for one – where I try to go only out of tourist season, because eating, drinking, shopping and gallery visiting have become less of a pleasure than a chore. If your approach to the Louvre or the Galeries Lafayette, not to mention your progress around them, feels more like a minor suburb of Beijing, you may start to ask why you are there.

Yet tourism, and specifically increasing it, remains an objective shared by cities and countries around the world. It is regarded as an engine of economic growth – or so the orthodox thinking goes. A flourishing tourist “industry” is a hallmark of success in the presumed global competition. London and the UK compare themselves compulsively with their presumed rivals and celebrate a move up the league tables.

Judged by these standards, our figures are impressive. Between 2009 and 2013, according to the Office for National Statistics, employment in tourism UK-wide grew twice as fast as employment in other sectors. In London, after years of stagnation, visitor numbers set a record in 2013 and again in 2014, when they reached 17.4 million – increases largely attributed to the Olympic afterglow. Visitor spending, at almost £12bn in 2014, was also its highest on record.

Or, as the Mayor, Boris Johnson, put it with his characteristic ebullience: “Record numbers of tourists are spending record amounts of dosh in our amazing city.”

But can tourism be too much of a good thing? When all the undoubted benefits are outweighed by the sheer aggravation, when numbers and money, the measurable things, are eclipsed by less quantifiable downsides, such as congestion, jobs that remain low-paid and insecure, and a deterioration in life quality for permanent residents?

One European city thinks so, and is daring to challenge the conventional wisdom that tourism is the bright white hope of a modern economy. The new Mayor of Barcelona, Ada Colau, was elected with a mandate to clip the mighty tourist industry’s wings. The last straw for residents, it seems, was the large number of young visitors fuelling a night-time economy deemed ever more antisocial. That, and the magnet that favourite areas of the city offered to petty criminals who saw tourists as easy prey.

The mayor has now declared a moratorium on new hotel licences and moved to clamp down on unregistered and illegal apartment-lets. The night-time economy will be subject to tougher policing. Business is already blaming her for killing the goose that laid the golden egg. But is she? Or is it rather a matter of the residents’ reclaiming the city as their own? And could Barcelona offer an example to other cities, including London?

There will be many, starting no doubt with Boris Johnson, who will fight the very idea that tourism in any way harms the UK capital. Both he and the Government see room for more growth. They especially have their eye on the high-spending shoppers who currently stop at Paris. To this end, the Home Office recently relaxed the visa regime for Chinese tour groups, with the result that, whisper it not, so far as moneyed Chinese go, the UK has for all practical purposes joined the Schengen Area.

True, efforts are periodically made to relieve London – by luring visitors beyond the capital and spreading the numbers around the year. But for all the persuasion, the capital retains its supremacy. Big Ben, the Houses of Parliament and the Tower are where visitors want to be seen. They want to ride a red bus, hail a black cab, squash into a red phone kiosk and watch the Changing of the Guard at Buckingham Palace. Even rationing by price is of limited effect: hotel costs, visa fees and the strong pound already make London one of the most expensive destinations in the world. Still, they keep on coming.

Which is why Londoners who feel crowded out by tourists would do well to keep an eye on Barcelona. For if the UK capital is to go on extending its welcome – and, despite the occasional scamming rickshaw, that welcome remains open  and warm – its year-round residents  will need to feel that tourism is more  than a cash cow for the national economy, that their city is more than a stage-set frozen in time, and  that their interests – above all in having a liveable city – are recognised, too.

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