I was talking recently with a veteran of the international luxury hotel industry. He’d spent his career traveling the world and living in interesting locales.
His commentary on the current scene: a sour and angry “I hate tourism. It is killing places.”
Well, it appears to be a given that tourism has essentially “killed” Venice.
But my hotelier friend is right: the plague is spreading. We are now seeing pushback against mass tourism in other places, like Barcelona.
In New England, where I live, the downtown areas of places like Newport are essentially tourist hang-outs in the summer.
Even lovely and low-key Newburyport, neglected from the early 1800s until a few short decades ago, has now become a destination, with the influx of tourists out of proportion to the small and intimate character of the place.
Then there’s Airbnb.
I knew one of the founders of Airbnb right before the deluge, when he was a student at Rhode Island School of Design. A smart and talented guy. I rooted for him as Airbnb took off and have myself been a very active host and guest over the years. I like how it lets you see places that you would otherwise not see– in the presence of locals, in the absence of cookie cutter hotels and often with a dose of serendipity and funky charm.
But it is not your daddy’s Airbnb any longer. More often than not these days when I stay in an Airbnb rental in New York City it is quite plain you are not being hosted but staying in what amounts to a fake hotel.
I will be staying at a place in the Lower East Side next week. Shortly after I made arrangements to stay there I got a note from the “host”, who advised me in a friendly though corporate tone that he would not be handling the details of my stay but that I would shortly be contacted by a kind-of concierge, a woman who was introduced by first name only, and an exotic first name at that. We will call her Esperanza here. Sure enough I got a follow up note right quick, professionally done. It read in part:
Moving forward, please direct all questions, concerns, and travel information to me. Please inform me of any special arrangements you may need prior to your arrival. My team and I will be responsible for providing you the best experience possible.
The only request that I have from you is at your earliest convenience; please send me your inbound flight itinerary or bus schedule and the time you plan on arriving to provide you with the lock box information which will contain the keys so you may check yourself in. Please be aware that I do not live in the building and must schedule a time to make sure the place is ready for you, so please send this information for a smooth check-in process. The day of your arrival, please reach out to me directly to my number since I do not check my email from 10am-3pm.
Just to reiterate the apartment rules:
- There are no parties allowed
- No extra guests unless discussed prior
- NO SMOKING
- Please take care of all sets of keys. Due to previous guests losing keys we are charging $50.00 per set.
Please treat the apartment with the same respect you would treat your own apartment. We do recommend taking off your shoes when entering the place due to the care we put into our floors.
The standard check in time is 3:00pm and check out time is 11:00am (If your checking out earlier then 11:00am then please let me know so I can schedule a earlier cleaning). If you have any special requests such as an early check in or a late check out please let me know. We will try our best to accommodate you.
Note that it is not enough that the host delegated the details to a concierge. Esperanza has a “team” to assist her!
So it is perfectly clear what is going on here: a chain of apartments under more or less professional management. No problem with the professionalism. In some ways it is better for the traveler than getting stuck on a doorstep in Newark ringing a doorbell at 11 at night and waiting for the snoozing host to wake up, hear it, and come downstairs apologetic. I have been there done that. But in other ways it is not good for the traveler that any personal touches, even idiosyncratic and sometimes funky ones, are gone.
Further, it is certainly not good for the hotel industry or the city that apartments are being taken off line as fake hotels. I have no love for hotels–that’s why I prefer Airbnb in the first place–but it is not fair that they act like hotels without any regulation or, in most cases, taxation.
And there is the problem of hollowing out, which can affect the host city. Manhattan is (for now at least) probably big enough to have an infestation of fake hotels be nothing more than an annoyance. Plus, Manhattan is “fake” at its core–it is already a playground for the world, and has been hollowed out in other ways, repeatedly, over the years.
But NYC is unlike virtually every other locale in Airbnb’s global reach. And so a smaller place like Amsterdam, interesting because of its intimate scale, is already packed with tourists and no longer a real city.
It is not quite Venice yet but the fear is there.
Already in Amsterdam the “streets are flooded. You don’t even try steering through the crowds. You’d be like Moses, except that God is not on your side, the Red Sea will not part in your favour, and the crowds will wash you away: the middle-aged couples from the US and Germany, here for the museums; and the stag parties from Spain, Italy and the UK, here in their epic attempt to drink all the beer and smoke all the pot.. . .So you learn to take the long way round to your destination and skip entire areas of Amsterdam – which nevertheless means that, perhaps once every summer, you’ll be down on the pavement after crashing into a distracted tourist who walked in front of your bike, and the whisper becomes a curse: “Fucking Venice!” (The Dutch like to swear in English.)
“Venice” is shorthand for a city so flooded by tourists that it no longer feels like a city at all. In the famed 2013 Dutch documentary I Love Venice a tourist asks: “At what time does Venice close?” It’s very funny, except, of course, that it is not funny at all.
The Dutch move out, pushed out by high costs, dwindling available housing and the spread of crime and drugs. When I recently visited a Dutch person I knew from my semester in Amsterdam in 1970 she opted not to accompany me on a trip to the city I knew from long ago. On leaving her suburban place she told me that she would be interested in my reaction to the city, which, as she saw it, was “no longer Dutch”. That was my reaction, too.
And Amsterdam is a large city by Dutch standards. Airbnb has lots of listings, too, in the way smaller but tourist friendly cities like Delft and Gouda. Here is a map of the city center of Haarlem, near Amsterdam, showing over 250 Airbnb listings. The Dutch even have a term which translates as “hollowed out city” that applies in such cases.
Local governments are starting to fight back, and not only at Airbnb, which is just a visible manifestation of a larger issue. So we will see more attempts, like that of Venice, to try to reclaim some of its city from the tourist industry. It will be an ongoing battle for quite a while, I am sure. But in the long run you’d be a fool to bet against tourism. What needs to happen is that new beautiful places must be fashioned so that the people who reside in the ugly places we build feel less of a need to invade the relatively few remaining pockets of beauty. What are the chances of that?
From better times: