Who Owns the City?


Amsterdam and Venice. Both famous for their picturesque canals and waterways. Both compact, easily walkable, and densely populated. Both overflowing with culture, filled with beautiful architecture, and renowned for offering a high quality of life.

There’s only one problem—many parts of both cities are bursting at the seams with tourists.

Last weekend, I visited Venice for the first time. I had a spectacular trip—I wandered the beautiful, mysterious Venetian streets, visited the one-of-a-kind Biennale, and quickly developed a taste for Aperol Spritz. But wow, so much of the place is devoted to visitors.

Obviously, tourism can be a great thing for cities. An influx of cash from outsiders can boost the local economy and create jobs. It can enrich local culture and add to the vibrancy of the local “scene.” But once tourism reaches a certain threshold, it begins to cut into residents’ quality of life. Streets and sidewalks are clogged. Businesses cater to visitors’ tastes rather than selling things that locals want and need. Weekenders often cause trouble. The constant presence of outsiders can diminish a neighborhood’s sense of community and local ownership.

How can cities maximize the economic and cultural benefits of tourism while minimizing the impact on residents’ quality of life? It’s an increasingly tricky balance to strike, and as Venice shows, the stakes are incredibly high.

Over 20 million people visit Venice every year. Despite the constant inflow, the city’s population has fallen by half in the past thirty years, down to below 60,000 residents. The crush of visitors has distorted the local economy, marginalizing nearly every industry except hospitality and retail. Housing costs have skyrocketed. Most of the city’s workers live elsewhere. The few who can still afford to live in the city often feel like their neighborhoods no longer belong to them.

Just look at the city’s politics. The current mayor ran on a platform largely focused on reducing tourism’s impact. A range of measures along these lines have since passed. Local support for cracking down on cruise ships is robust. There is talk of creating a city-wide entrance fee. Outside of the restaurants, shops, and museums, the mood is one of resistance—anti-tourist posters are commonplace. I even encountered a public demonstration against cruise ships.

Despite being commonly referred to as the “Venice of the North,” Amsterdam is a very different city than its Italian counterpart. The municipality’s population is more than ten times larger. Its economy is diverse and built on a strong foundation of high-skill labor. The center of the city is often mobbed with tourists, but most neighborhoods do not feel overrun.

Still, the impact of tourism has been substantial enough to generate pushback. The city council recently passed a moratorium on new hotels in most parts of the city. The municipality struck a landmark agreement with AirBnB, limiting the number of days that property owners can rent out their homes. The budget of the city’s marketing operation was recently cut by more than 20 percent.

Ultimately, issues with tourism are heavily influenced by the trademark urban scarcity—the availability of space. It seems like compact cities with little geographic separation between major attractions and residential areas or central business districts suffer more from tourist overload than larger, more diffuse places. A bigger, more dispersed city can contain tourists in specific areas where they’ll be less disruptive to the regular rhythms of urban life. Or they can spread them out across many areas of the city so the oversaturation point is harder to reach.

It’s also no secret that areas popular with tourists quickly become more expensive. As affordability becomes one of the defining issues in cities across the world, local governments need to think long and hard about the tradeoffs between accommodating visitors and keeping things affordable for residents.

Unfortunately, managing tourism will only become more complex over the coming years—the “democratization” of the hospitality industry by services like AirBnB has made regulation more difficult, and the global middle class is growing exponentially. Many more tourists are coming. Soon.

Given the local/visitor, insider/outsider dynamic inherent with tourism, this issue forces cities to take a good, hard look in the mirror. Who gets to experience the city? How far are we willing to go to keep it that way?

Ross Tilchin is a visiting fellow at the Amsterdam Institute for Social Science Research and a member of the strategy team at the Amsterdam Economic Board. Before arriving in Amsterdam, Ross worked as a researcher at the Brookings Institution, a nonprofit research organization in Washington, D.C., where he specialized in urban economic development and a wide range of issues related to cities. You can read his previous blog here.