Friday, August 5, 2016

Crowding Out the Locals

There are plenty of ways to make a bad impression in foreign countries. Martin, a 24-year-old from California, has chosen one of the most proven approaches. The fun-loving member of the United States military is drinking his way through Europe this summer. He has nothing but rave reviews about his trip so far.

He's partied in the streets of Barcelona, in a vacation apartment on the island of Ibiza and on a party boat. He is leaving for Prague tomorrow morning to party some more, but before then he plans to party his way through Berlin as part of a guided pub crawl. He's wearing shoes with flashing lights and has already had four beers and two shots of tequila to get himself into the mood.

The excursion, billed on the Internet as the Original Berlin Pub Crawl, consists of guided drinking in three pubs and one club. The pub crawl starts every evening at 10 p.m. at a hostel near Alexanderplatz. Participants receive a free shot of hard liquor for every beer or cocktail they drink, and in the second bar the local guides pour peppermint schnapps directly from the bottle into their mouths. The organizer, an Irish businessman based in Berlin, offers similar tours in 12 other European cities.

The group is relatively small on this Monday -- small meaning 80 people. On weekends, the group can consist of up to 200 people. They include underage Britons who drink cheap vodka while traveling from one pub to the next; Americans thrilled by the fact that drinking alcohol in the streets is allowed in Europe; and three tattooed Germans from the state of Saxony involved a burping contest. When an older woman walks by in the Alexanderplatz subway station, one of them shouts "pussy" and "nice ass" at her. People of the world, come to Berlin to go binge-drinking.

'It's a Nightmare!'

The group is in top form in the subway. They all crowd into the same car, where they begin hopping around and caterwauling, until the car begins to sway. "Olé, olé, olé, olé" is their most harmless chant. Soccer fans are angels compared to these people. It is events like these that cement Berlin's reputation as a party town -- and simultaneously damage the city's image. "This is precisely the sort of recreational activity that we don't want," says Berlin tourism chief Burkhard Kieker. "It's a nightmare."

Tourists are conquerors who disguise themselves as friends, which often makes them difficult to deal with, no matter how much money they spend. Ever since short trips to nearby or faraway cities have become a national pastime, city dwellers around the globe have complained about the growing inhospitality of their cities. They feel overwhelmed and stretched too thin.

The business of city trips is flourishing, from Asia to South America. In Europe, the number of booked trips to cities grew by almost 40 percent from 2005 to 2014. German cities like Munich have seen even larger increases in visitors. Even companies like coffee retailer Tchibo and grocery discounter Aldi have gotten into the travel business.

The hype is fueled by companies like Airbnb, which provide additional lodgings in an already overheated market. The number of available places to stay is especially high in Paris, where there are already half as many vacation apartments as hotel rooms.

Desolate Downtowns

Things are moving -- for travelers, the travel industry and providers of lodgings. But local residents are groaning, especially in densely populated Europe, where attractions are often concentrated in an area of a few square kilometers, in cities like Barcelona, Prague and Salzburg. Tourist destinations perceive the crowds of tourists as an affliction. Residents are fleeing, and businesses like bakeries and grocery stores are disappearing along with them, replaced by souvenir shops and currency exchanges. Downtown neighborhoods are becoming desolate.

The conditions German writer Hans Magnus Enzensberger warned against in his treatise "A Theory of Tourism" almost 60 years ago are becoming reality. Enzensberger argued that travelers, through their mere presence, threaten or destroy what they are actually seeking: originality and local color.

To echo what the porcupine said to the wheezing hare in the fable, Enzensberger wrote, "tourism anticipates its refutation." In fact, this dialectic is the "engine of its development." The visitor sets out on a search for new thrills and attractions, and when he reaches his destination, he immediately deprives it of its mystique. This is why he is constantly searching for unknown destinations and sensations.

Venice is an example of a city that has lost its magic. Since 1980, the population has shrunk from 120,000 to only 60,000. In return, 80,000 individual and cruise-ship tourists visit the city of canals and lagoons every day. Venice, the respected Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung newspaper recently wrote, has been largely "mummified" and mutated into a "walkable postcard landscape."

Loss of Identity

To protect their city from a similar fate, residents of European cities are rebelling. At the forefront are the people of Barcelona, whose tourism boom began with the 1992 Olympic Games. The capital of the Catalonia region reinvented itself for the global event. City planners and architects built futuristic buildings and created a long, sandy beach that turned the fishing community of Barceloneta into a playground.

Restaurants on the boardwalk display neon-lit signs of mussels and chicken over rice. But beyond the beach, in the narrow streets of Barceloneta, residents protest against the crowds of tourists by hanging the district's flag from their windows, an image of a sailboat and a lighthouse on a blue-and-yellow background, along with banners with slogans like: "No Tourist Apartments!" There have been repeated demonstrations over the years, starting in 2014, when three naked Italians strolled into a supermarket, presumably tourists staying in vacation apartments.

But there is hope, and it is fueled by people like Ada Colau. The 42-year-old developed a reputation as an activist and figurehead of the squatter community. She was elected mayor of Barcelona more than a year ago. Mass tourism is her biggest issue. Colau has promised citizens to recapture the city for them.

by Dinah Deckstein and Alexander Kühn, Der Spiegel | Read more:
Image: Gunnar Knechtel