Leading Article: Subtly spreading the tourist load

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The Independent Online
IT IS an irony of rising prosperity that, while the world's poorest nations are desperate for tourists to visit them, well-to-do historic towns in industrial countries want to put visitors off. The Great Stay Away day that was proposed in Cambridge is a potent symbol of this phenomenon, with its slogan of 'Cambridge is full - we don't want you'. This growing hostility to tourists may be understandable, but can it be rational to turn them away?

Once it passes a certain point, tourism can lower a city's quality of life, effectively killing the thing it loves. But its benefits should not be taken for granted. Tourism brings trade to local shops, hotels and restaurants and can raise property values. Indirectly it increases revenues for the local authority, and thus reduces the tax burden on residents. Visitors to historic towns who contribute to the local economy have a right to have their interests taken into account.

In practical terms, hostility is rarely prompted by dislike of visitors themselves. Rather, it is the accompanying traffic congestion that so alarms the residents of places such as Bath, Cambridge, Windsor and the Cotswold towns. If the problem is mainly traffic, rather than people, then thoughtful policies can keep bumper-to-bumper coach tours out of city centres. Instead of merely making it hard to enter the city centre and park there (which seems to be the policy of many English city councils), positive incentives might be offered to encourage people to walk, cycle or even boat around towns.

Reducing the density of visitors is a more subtle business. Very few tourists actually prefer to be in a crowd. Most would prefer to walk along a quiet and picturesque street, if only they could find one: if too many succeed, it ceases to be quiet. By signposting walking routes, creating cycle paths and encouraging bicycle rentals, and listing in tourist offices not just the main sights of the town but also interesting ways of getting from one to the other, local councils can do much to spread the visitors - and the wealth they bring with them - around the town. Anyone who has visited Bruges, in Belgium, has an idea of how effective all these measures can be.

The guide to visitor management that has been published by the English Historic Towns Forum is a useful first step in coping with tourism. One proposal that should be ignored, however, is for subsidies from the public purse for historic towns. Popular 'destinations' should be capable of using tourist income to improve their own environment. They neither need nor deserve support from the rest of us.