Transforming discourses on tourism

By Roos Gerritsma, Martine Roeleveld and Guido Stompff from Inholland University

Preliminary results of an extensive discourse analysis (2000 – 2020) on tourism and the impact on the inhabitants of Amsterdam reveal remarkably consistent, well known and opposing discourses. Smaller, transforming discourses emerged over time that attempt to solve the dualism and despite they are less in the news seem to have a large impact on policies.

The Amsterdam team of SMARTDEST gathered data from local and national newspapers plus other relevant sources that portray the evolving public discourse on tourism in Amsterdam. We expected that the discourse would be shaped by policy regime changes, while at the same time shaping local and national policies. Analysis is still ongoing, but preliminary results depict a remarkably consistent dualism between ‘growth’ and ‘liveability’ discourses. Besides two polarised  discourses, smaller discourses could be observed that seem to have planted the seeds for policy changes.

Starting with collecting thousands of media articles in the period 2000 -2020, the Amsterdam team of SMARTDEST team reduced the data set by strategically choosing  pivotal years in the development of Amsterdam tourism. Five years (2000, 2009, 2014, 2018, 2020) were chosen on the basis of a timeline in which policy changes and  major events were plotted. For example, 2014 was a jubilant year for Amsterdam tourism, including the reopening of one of its main attractions (the Rijksmuseum) resulting in extensive city marketing. While the public debate around excesses of tourists in the city can be traced back to 2000 (and arguably even before!), in 2014 that the debate hardened considerably. In 2015 a policy change attempted to rebalance the interests of residents, businesses and tourists and to enlarge the ‘liveability’ of the centre of Amsterdam, by means of a taskforce called ‘City in Balance’.

Over the course of these years the main discourses have proven to be remarkably stable, albeit the vocabulary and tone of voice and the spokespersons have changed. Although the numbers of overnight stays tourist in these two decades nearly tripled, the same dualism surfaces every year: between a ‘growth’ perspective versus a ‘liveability’ perspective. Whereas the first gives voice to economic considerations, the second voices concerns on the negative impact of tourism, although what is troubling residents changes over time. Whereas in the past pickpockets and small drugs related crime dominated this discourse, in recent years it has turned to nuisances in relation to AirBnB, stag parties, the city as a ‘themepark’ revolving into the qyuestion ‘who owns the city’.

In between these main discourses, several others emerge that attempt to transform the dualism, offering an overarching perspective that integrates opposing viewpoints. For example, at the beginning of the century the ‘tolerance’ discourse (e.g.: “Amsterdam is the gay capital”) offered such an overarching perspective, striving for both economic growth and tolerance, that is: more tourists and an inclusive city. Lately, the ‘reinvent tourism’ movement also offers such a transformative perspective, striving for an inclusive and sustainable kind of tourism, bringing tourists and residents together. Of particular interest is that these overarching, yet smaller perspectives seem to be influential on policy makers, offering a way out of opposing viewpoints. For example, the  highly successful ‘I Amsterdam’ city identity campaign that started in 2004 explicitly celebrated the diversity of it’s residents, arguably inspired by the ‘tolerance’ discourse.

remote worker

Working remotely (and travelling) during the pandemic

By Franz Buhr, Institute of Geography and Spatial Planning, University of Lisbon

As the COVID-19 pandemic disseminated and intensified remote work practices, more and more professionals became interested in spending a few months at pleasant destinations where confinement restrictions were not so strict. These ‘pandemic travellers’ add to existing mobility patterns of digital nomads – professionals who work while travelling. Lisbon has increasingly attracted mobile remote workers, who relocate to the city for short periods with the goal of combining work, travel and leisure.

During (and even before) the pandemic, a number of countries established schemes facilitating the inflow of remote workers, such as Croatia, Estonia, Barbados, among others. In December 2020, Greece joined the global hunt for digital nomads as its parliament passed a new law allowing digital nomads to half their income tax. Although there is no national programme aiming to specifically attract remote workers to Portugal, digital nomads have demonstrated interest in relocating to places like Lisbon, Ericeira or the Madeira islands.

Long before ‘pandemic travellers’ started heading to Lisbon to enjoy its mild weather and the possibilities of working from cafés or coworking spaces (which was impossible in Belgium or Germany, for instance), digital nomads had already ranked Lisbon as a favourite destination. In 2018, the economy magazine Forbes placed Lisbon as the fourth ideal city for digital nomads (after Bali, London, and Chiang Mai). These professionals seem to be attracted to Lisbon’s sunny weather, fast internet, walkability, and local infrastructure to work from. In November 2020, during the first phase of the pandemic in Portugal, a special decree was passed authorising hotels (which were mostly empty) to adapt their restaurants and lobbies as coworking spaces, signalling a growing demand for shared offices by digital nomads and other remote professionals.

Although some prefer to work from ‘home’ (usually a short-term rental with high speed connection), digital nomads often work from cafés and coworking spaces. As temporary residents, they seem to blur long-established distinctions between tourists and residents (or between outsiders and locals), as they find accommodation through digital platforms, but also become knowledgeable about local trends using mobile technologies to learn about nightlife, restaurants and the city’s ‘hidden gems’. Moreover, as their mobilities are motivated by the possibility to combine work and lifestyle, digital nomads usually move to places where they maximize purchase power, thus adding pressure to local markets. In this sense, the impact of digital nomads upon local neighbourhoods deserves further research, especially as it may intersect with wider urban change patterns, such as gentrification and commercial landscape transformation.

Rents for students

Housing the student population after Covid. Inclusive recovery strategies or business as usual?

by Loris Servillo and Samantha Cenere from Politecnico di Torino

Student mobilities present interesting similarities to touristic ones, such as their relevance for urban economies and their distorting effects on the housing market. The Covid pandemic has shed light on the dependence of some cities on university students, forcing them to implement ad hoc recovery strategies.

The housing market of major European cities has been undergoing major reconfiguration processes, for which an important driver of change is the impact that mobile populations (tourists, students, temporary workers) exert on long-term residents’ access to decent and affordable housing. Albeit rarely acknowledged, in particular university students represent for many European cities a relevant segment of the market whose effect in this respect could be considered partially similar to the ones of tourists.

Two main trends of urban transformations are triggered by student housing dynamics, which eventually may produce conflicts and negative externalities for local communities. On the one hand, the role of competitors played by students in the long-term housing market. On the other, the increasing relevance played by PBSAs (Purpose Built Student Accommodation) as a major real-estate investment.

The Covid pandemic has made evident the increasing level of dependence on mobile populations (especially tourists) characterising some urban economies and it has shown the vulnerability of a housing market dominated – particularly in some cities in the global touristic circuits – by short-rental accommodations. The exceptional stop to mobilities is showing interesting process of reconfiguration as well as unexpected windows of opportunities to implement positive reforms for local residents. First, strategies that broadly addressed these two types of categories (tourists and students) are becoming sharper through market operators’ shift of attention. Short-term accommodation platforms like Airbnb have supported their clients in reconfiguring their offer toward medium-term rent while it seems most likely that students are the first mobile group that will be back in town.

Second, declared intentions of reforming the housing supply seems floating around. A recent article in the Guardian listed a series of initiatives (or rather good intentions) to take advantage of this opportunity. The case of Lisbon made headlines, due to the city’s launch of a programme aiming at converting touristic flats into affordable housing and the very strong tensions caused by tourism in the housing accessibility for local residents, even if its size of intervention was very soon downscaled.

In this frame, looking at various initiatives currently popping up in many Italian cities, another trend seems to be at work; namely, the effort to implement strategies to bring students ‘back in town’.

Indeed, many Italian cities have been working to either expand or sustain the offer of student accommodation. In Parma, an important university town, the City has launched a rent support programme for low-income students, thanks to a partnership with the Region and the University that enabled to create a dedicated fund. The Piedmont Region launched a public tender to convert tourist accommodation facilities into student halls, aiming at increasing by 260 units the offer of bed places allocated to students in need in Turin. In Bologna, a partnership between the City and the University aims at transforming tourist accommodation facilities into student halls and, in the meantime, providing financial support to low-income students. Venice has gone further, directly involving the renown short-term rental platform Airbnb in the conversion of flats formerly rent to tourists into student accommodation. Indeed, the Country Manager of Airbnb has expressed interest into the possibility of expending the company’s offer to medium-term rents. Pursuing a different path, Milan looks at the business of PBSAs to build a city attractive to students. The city’s strategy to bring back students (especially international ones) while paying attention to provide spaces that are compliant with the social distance prescriptions consists in the provision of 13 new PBSAs, for a total amount of 5,000 new bed places for students.