The future of city tourism

Want to offer the best city break around? Then focus on becoming the best place to live, writes Justin Francis

In times of crisis, cities must adapt to survive.

And post-Covid-19, a key factor in building future resilience will be how they manage tourism.

The first rule of being a great city break destination? Forget about being a great city break destination.

Instead refocus that energy on becoming the best place to live – and trust that tourism will follow.

For many – desperate to rebuild their beleaguered tourism industry – that’s likely feel vastly counterintuitive. Insensitive even, to the deep challenges we all currently face.

But city destinations that prioritise residents and businesses now; that invest in desirable, sustainable living – and manage tourism well – will be the ones that reap the rewards and help secure their future resilience.

To move forward, we first need to consider where we are.

The enduring threat: community exodus

As the global rich devour property for investment portfolios, scant few people – bar the highest earners and those who inherit homes – can afford to live in many city centres.

While many destinations are growing, the populations of Paris, Venice, New York, Beijing and Shanghai are in decline, as residents search for higher quality, lower cost living elsewhere.

Overtourism also corrodes local life. Clogging streets, inflating house prices and overwhelming communities, it creates a terrible place to live.

The subsequent exodus of residential community eventually turns vibrant ‘must-visits’ into hollowed-out theme parks. Pretty unappealing, for any length of stay.

The understandable temptation for destinations most dependent on tourism – and deprived of it for so long during global lockdown – would be to return to the old normal as soon as possible, cramming their streets and cafes full of tourists.

In the long run, those cities will lose out.

The new threat: death of the office

The most habitable cities attract the most talented staff, which attracts business and investment. It’s no coincidence that the world’s financial centres are in some of the most desirable cities in which to live.

Covid-19 hasn’t killed the office. Not entirely. There will always been a need for the proximity and enjoyment of facetime with colleagues.

But lockdown life has shown many of us that remote working – with its freedoms and flexibility – is entirely possible.

Cities we love have become increasingly unlivable - and now we no longer need to stay to be close to work. We can live more affordably – with a larger home and more green space – further out. The suburban grass has never looked greener.

Add to this the decline of the business trip, and cities face a stark new challenge.

Many workspaces will downsize. Giant new office blocks could become white elephants. If they fail to adapt and innovate, whole cities could too.

If companies no longer need fork out on prime location, cities will face increasingly stiff competition to retain them. And that means less money to invest in local communities, and tourism.

Back to rule number one. Happy locals make a happy city – and a great place to visit.

Below are some steps to building a future-fit city destination that works for everyone.

11 steps to city resilience

    1. Locals are your lifeblood. Rule number one bears repeating. Put the needs of residents before tourists. To be a great place to visit, a city must – first and foremost – be a great place to live. When quality of living deteriorates, first you lose residents. Then businesses. And with that, you lose the soul and living history of a place - as well as crucial investment. In time, tourists will steer clear too.

    2. Prioritise homes for living, not letting. Left unchecked, Airbnb and other short-term tourist rentals price out residents and threaten culture and heritage: see point one. Young people should have the chance to remain in their cities of birth – and they’ll add more value than tourists over their lifetimes. Local housing markets must be protected, and therefore aggressively regulated.

    3. Etiquette rules. Tourists are guests in another’s home - anti-social behaviour should not be tolerated. Put yourself in local shoes. Other spaces can and should be created for visitors wanting to crank up the volume – away from people’s homes.

    4. Breathe easy: go car-free. Take full advantage of recent improvements to air quality, access and noise reduction: drive cars out of cities. Develop pedestrian-only areas, walking and cycling routes, park-and-cycle schemes, while also improving accessibility.

    5. Tourism economics 101. Understand your tourism net benefit. How much is your net profit from various types of tourism - after water usage, waste, hospital costs and infrastructure investment? Define the pollution, congestion and social impact tradeoffs. What kind of tourism brings the greatest benefits, at the least cost? Additionally, consider a tourism tax: visitors are, in effect, temporary residents. They make use of public services – it’s appropriate they make a small contribution. A minor daily charge won’t scare off good tourists, especially when they know it’s reinvested in improving and maintaining the beautiful places they visit.

    6. Re-wild the concrete jungle. The physical and mental benefits of green space are well documented, and there’s abundant evidence they’re an essential part of desirable urban living. Many people in towns and cities worldwide have enjoyed seeing nature return, and thrive, during lockdown. Let’s keep it that way. Design nesting sites for birds on buildings and try bee hives on roofs. Re-wild scrubland; let road and rail verges grow wild. Residents, tourists and the planet will thank you.

    7. Protect the vital organs. Culture and heritage are the beating heart of a city. Local artisans, makers, artists and culture creators may be small enterprises - but they’re your living link to heritage. Without them, an essential part of your city dies. And residents and tourists alike will notice.

    8. The benefits of urban density. Key to this is good planning and management, green space, and investment in sustainable and affordable quality living. Stockholm is a good example. Dense dwelling reduces urban sprawl and frees up space for nature. It can reduce energy waste - through naturally better-insulated flats, newer, better-insulated builds and retrofitting, as well as local, micro energy and water grids. Waste and water management is more efficient with shorter distribution distances. There’s a lower dependence on cars. Done well, it’s greener and more sustainable than suburb or countryside living, and can result in a lower cost to local authorities per person. However, planning must always factor in the need to provide communities with a strong connection with nature, and one another. How does this relate to tourism? Sustainability and quality of life relate to everything. Plus, cost savings can be reinvested into better facilities for residents, and improved tourism management.

    9. Food for thought. The Covid-19 crisis has drawn eyes to often wasteful hotel buffets. That’s good. But we need to dive deeper. For most tourists, what they consume will be the single largest source of carbon emissions in their destination. For a few, carbon ‘foodprint’ will be greater than their flight. We have an unprecedented opportunity to re-design food production and distribution – for tourists, and residents. Shortening supply chains increases resilience. In the early days of lockdown – with major stores overwhelmed – many of us turned to local ‘farm to fork’ box initiatives. Those fortunate enough to have access to roof terraces or gardens began to grow their own. Now is the moment to invest in and accelerate direct access to good, affordable local produce – supporting local businesses and moving away from the intensive agriculture practices that destroy our wildlife and forests, in the UK and globally.

    10. Create hubs-and-spokes between city centres, suburbs and rural areas. Promote tourism beyond the usual landmarks. Invest in strong public transport links - and the marketing - to encourage city breakers to get a taste of real suburban and rural life. Doing so will enrich their visit, spread the benefits of tourism more widely, and reduce pressure on city centres. People will stay longer in your destination. That means greater economic benefits – and, with fewer but longer holidays by air – reduced emissions.

    11. Diversity enriches cities, and tourism. The segregated city is not future-fit. The city of extreme wealth and poverty - and those that drive minorities and low-waged residents to the peripheries - are poorer for it, in a great many ways. And destinations that confine visitors to a highly concentrated and ‘sanitised’ version of themselves lose part of their soul and attraction in the process. Tourism can and should engage beyond pockets of privilege – and I don’t mean via ill-conceived ‘poverty tours’. A destination is more than its museums and monuments. It’s the people, the rich and diverse cultures, dishes, languages and histories. This is a far bigger and more complex issue than it’s possible to do justice to here. But for the reasons above and more, it benefits us all to broaden the tourist experience, spread the benefits, and understand the needs and experiences of all travellers and residents.

Written by Justin Francis