Ever increasing numbers of city-breaks and short holidays ruining cities – and the climate

With rising affluence in much of the world, and flying being unrealistically cheap (as it pays no fuel duty, and almost no other taxes) people want as many short holidays and city breaks as they can get. This is starting to have very negative impacts on some of the cities most visited, eg. Barcelona. Growth is relentless. The UN World Tourism Organisation (UNWTO) even speaks about tourism as a right for all citizens, and their forecasts suggest increases from 1 billion international travellers today, to 1.8 billion by 2030.  But there is a huge price to pay in carbon emissions from all these trips and holidays, most of which is the flights.  Short breaks therefore, pollute more per night than longer breaks. And  you can fit more into your year. “The marketing department might prefer a Japanese tourist to Barcelona because on average they will spend €40 more than a French tourist – according to unpublished data from the Barcelona Tourist Board – but the carbon footprint we collectively pay for is not taken into account.” People are being persuaded by advertising and marketing, and a change in ethos of society, to take more short holidays – not one longer one.  A report in 2010 suggested that makes people the happiest. More trips = more carbon emissions.



How to stop city breaks killing our cities

Can’t wait to pack your bags and head off on holiday again? It used to be that people would look forward to a long break in summer, but now tourists have got used to regular short breaks through the year. We love to jet off to the world’s glittering cities, even if only for a day or two. The trouble is, binge travelling may be killing the places we visit.

You may even have seen some “tourists go home” graffiti on your last trip, and it’s not hard to see why. Barcelona is a good example of how a city can groan under the weight of its popularity. It now has the busiest cruise port, and the second fastest growing airport in Europe. Walking through the Barcelona streets at peak season (which now never seems to end) flings you into a relentless stream of tourists. They fill the city’s hot spots in search of “authentic” tapas and sangria, and a bit of culture under the sun. The mayor has echoed residents’ concerns over the impact of tourism; a strategic plan has been put in place.

It is true though, that cities tend to start managing the impact of tourism only when it is already too late. It creeps up on them. Unlike visitors to purpose-built beach destinations and national parks, city-break tourists use the same infrastructure as the locals: existing systems start slowly to stretch at the seams. Business travellers, stag parties and museum visitors will all use existing leisure facilities.

Barcelona may only be the 59th largest city in the world, but it is the 12th most popular with international visitors. Compared to London or Paris, it is small, and tourism has spiked sharply since the 1992 Olympics rather than grown steadily as in other European favourites like Rome.

Growth is relentless. The UN World Tourism Organisation (UNWTO) even speaks about tourism as a right for all citizens, and citizens are increasingly exercising that right: from 1 billion international travellers today, we will grow to 1.8 billion by 2030, according to UNWTO forecasts.

Faced with this gathering storm, just who is tourism supposed to benefit? Travellers, cities, residents or the tourism industry?

Market forces

Managing the impact of tourism starts by changing the way destinations market themselves: once the tourists arrive, it’s too late. Tourism authorities need to understand that they are accountable to the city, not to the tourism industry. When the city of Barcelona commissioned the University of Surrey to look into how it might best promote sustainable development, we found a series of techniques which have been incorporated, at least in part, into the city’s 2020 Tourism Strategy.

In the simplest terms, the trick is to cajole tourists into city breaks which are far less of a burden on the urban infrastructure. In other words, normalising the consumption of sustainable tourism products and services. In Copenhagen, 70% of the hotels are certified as sustainable and the municipal authority demands sustainability from its suppliers.

Higher than the sun. A primal scream from the world’s cities? Josep Tomàs/Flickr, CC BY-NC-ND

Destinations must also be accountable for the transport impact of their visitors. The marketing department might prefer a Japanese tourist to Barcelona because on average they will spend €40 more than a French tourist – according to unpublished data from the Barcelona Tourist Board – but the carbon footprint we collectively pay for is not taken into account.

Crucially, for the kind of city breaks we might enjoy in Barcelona, most of the carbon footprint from your holiday is from your transport. Short breaks therefore, pollute more per night and so destinations ought to be fighting tooth and nail to get you to stay longer. It seems like a win for tourists too: a few extra days in the Spanish sun, a more relaxing break, and all accompanied by the warm glow of self-satisfaction and a gold star for sustainability.

Destinations can also target customers that behave the most like locals. Japanese first-time visitors to Barcelona will crowd the Sagrada Familia cathedral, while most French tourists are repeat visitors that will spread out to lesser-known parts of the city. Reducing seasonality by emphasising activities that can be done in winter or at less crowded times, and geographically spreading tourism by improving less popular areas and communicating their particular charms can also help reduce pressure on hot spots, much like Amsterdam is doing.

Turnover is vanity, and profit margins are sanity. No city should smugly crow about the sheer volume of visitors through its gates. If tourism is here to stay, then the least cities can do is to sell products that will have the greatest benefit for society. Whether it’s Barcelona, Berlin, Bologna or Bognor, there should be a focus on locally and ethically produced products and services which residents are proud to sell. Tourist boards should work with small businesses that offer creative and original things to do and places to stay, adding breadth to the city’s offering.

Whether Barcelona will introduce these ideas will depend on the bravery of politicians and buy-in from the powerful businesses which are happily making short-term profits at the expense of residents and the planet. It is possible to do things differently, and for everyone to benefit more. It may be that the tipping point lies in the age-old mechanics of supply and demand: bear that in mind next time you’re booking a quick city break that looks like it’s only adding to the problem.




See earlier (2010)


Take shorter breaks more often for the happiest time off

The best way to extract full value from a holiday is to interrupt it with some work, says a leisure study

BY SUSIE MESURE (Independent)


It’s the annual highlight for millions of Brits: two weeks doing nothing on a beach. But holidaymakers could be missing a trick by taking long breaks, new research suggests. A number of short trips leaves people happier than one long one, psychologists believe.

What’s more, seeking out a holiday you might not enjoy at the time will pay off in the long run by providing better memories, the behavioural economist Dan Ariely argues in a new book, The Upside of Irrationality. His findings come as official figures show the number of visits abroad by British residents has slumped, leaving Europe’s biggest holiday companies with thousands of unsold summer breaks.

Tom Meyvis, associate professor of marketing at New York University’s Stern School of Business and an expert on consumer behaviour, claimed: “Longer vacations don’t give us better memories. We forget how long things actually take and just remember peak moments.” He added: “Vacations are not always that much fun, but we anticipate them as fun and remember the good parts, not, for example, the bad bus journey.”

For maximum vacation fun, experts actually suggest breaking up a trip with a spot of work, to delay the so-called “adaptation process” that makes holidays spent in the same place appear to speed up as the days go by. Professor Ariely, who teaches at North Carolina’s Duke University, said: “On a long vacation, day seven is less good than day one because it’s not as exciting. That’s why in general, going away four times [a year] provides more benefit than you would expect, and going away for one week provides less benefit than you would expect.”

Although a lucrative mini-break market has sprung up to cater for demand for shorter trips, most employees – and families – still take at least one longer holiday, usually in August, as a glance around most offices across Britain will confirm.

If your bags are packed ready for a fortnight away, then Professor Meyvis’s research might help you get the most from your time off. He discovered that disrupting a hedonistic experience helped to intensify it. So tearing yourself away from a day at the beach to tidy up your hotel room would make your holiday more fun. “We found a strong preference for not breaking up a positive experience, but it turns out that when you gave [our respondents] a break, they enjoyed something more. It’s counterintuitive; nobody wants to take a break, but the break disrupts the adaptation process so the enjoyment goes back to the original level,” he said.

Charlotte Robinson, 35, a consultant radiologist who lives in Maidenhead, said she could still visualise the high points of childhood summer holidays, even if on paper they did not sound very good. “I remember a gîte in France where it rained, the roof leaked, the septic tank overflowed, and we had power cuts, but what I really remember is the fields of sunflowers, the bicycle that came with the gîte and us calling my mother Speedy Gonzales as she cycled around, smiling, with the wind in her hair,” she said.

Not all behavioural economists back the mini-break logic. Tim Harford, the author of Dear Undercover Economist, said: “Some psychologists suggest that there’s a bigger psychic payoff from taking more, shorter holidays. But remember the hassle of packing and airports or traffic jams, the time it takes to get anywhere, and the expense of taking more short breaks. If you pack three times as many holidays into the same amount of leave, you can expect three times as much trouble. It’s not obvious to me that it’s worth it.”

Less is more: The case for the micro holiday

Emma Cotton, 35, from London, says: “My most enduring and best holiday memories are from action holidays. On short trips away I have surfed on the longest board known to man in Portugal; been flung through the air kite surfing in Egypt; hiked through the Atlas Mountains in Morocco, and been on walking trips in the Basque area of Spain. Most of these have resulted in a severe sense of humour failure at some stage, but they were all exhilarating, tiring in the best sense of the word, and above all, memorable.”