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.Yes, it’s awful when you feel like an alien in your own country, isn’t it? As long as it's only tourists that make you feel that way, of course.
If it's not just tourists, well, the State's agents will be along shortly...
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.Well, quite! However, maybe you should ask why they are there instead?
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.Well, yes. Haven't you noticed we are in a recession? Tourist money is to be welcomed, because tourists go home eventually.
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?I'm all for residents reclaiming their own. But I can't help but wonder if you'd support all such efforts, or only those that target tourists, Mary....
… 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.I applaud your desire to have a livable city, for the natural born residents of that city to have a say in who settles there. I just think you might, perhaps, have chosen the wrong target.