Overtourism – Can policymaking counteract the phenomenon?

By Guido Stompff and Roos Gerritsma InHolland University of applied sciences.

Tourism is a wicked problem and there is no centrally coordinated policymaking to balance opposing interests. The narrative of growth has failed, but a new one hasn’t arisen or embraced.

Amsterdam is a major tourist destination in Europe and one of the case studies of SMARTDEST. Despite Amsterdam is renowned for its tolerance, since 2014 the discourse towards tourism and its excesses turned sour. COVID-19 revealed its residents what the city is without the crowds and arguably it was one of the drivers for the overwhelming support for a public petition, demanding, among others, to cap the number of visitors. It lead to a recent and significant regime change, gaining international attention. At the same time, it is merely one of the policy changes of the past 20 years.

We wanted to know how these policy regime changes are shaped and by whom. 21 key stakeholders, were interviewed, including planners and policymakers, representatives of (influential) resident organizations, activists, experts, entrepreneurs, and representatives from the industry, each offering another lens on the drivers underneath policymaking in relation to tourism. Two key insight emerged.

First of all, it became clear that tourism is a genuine wicked problem and there is no such thing as central policymaking, a central director, or a political arena where opposing interests are balanced. Tourism is entangled with other issues as housing, and politics are myopic, focusing on high-profile problems nearby: “what they then do is a kind of (..) problem-picking: (..) the coffee shops; the windows in the Red light district… It never works; on the contrary, new problems are created (..) because all the problems are interconnected”.

The inherent solutionism is strengthened by the lack of a centrally coordinated policymaking: policies are made at different level (district, city, MRA, national): “We have broadened the highways [nationally]. We have enlarged Schiphol [Airport]. (..) And now we are wondering [in Amsterdam]: ‘where did all these people come from?’”. Also, policymaking is done by different departments and involving fairly different stakeholders. For example, hotel policies are made and enacted by the department of Economics, whereas Airbnb policies are shaped by Housing. As policymaking is so dispersed, the respondents feel they are left out, and finger-point at others who they believe are influential, who are merely pointing back. At a larger scale, it can be argued that these feelings are a driver for the participation fatigue of residents and organisations that were discussed in the interviews.

Second, the shattered landscape of policymaking implies that there is no long term holistic vision. Respondents discussed the former ‘grand narrative’ of growth as tourism had to mitigate the economic recession of a decade ago. Polices were enacted that instigated entrepreneurship: “everything should be possible, only the excesses must be addressed”. It worked (too) well as numbers skyrocketed. Combined with a faltering enforcement and ignoring the interests of locals, this resulted in much discontent and eventually a political U-turn. However, a new and widely embraced narrative has not been developed yet. The interest in one of the promising attempts of last years (City in Balance) has flawed and recently other attempts were done to develop a another new vision, e.g. by a urban planner who was assigned by the mayor; or by Amsterdam & Partners, a hybrid public-private network organization. Respondents reported mixed feelings about these initiatives.

Barcelona and Covid-19 era: where does virtual mobility win over human (im)mobility?

By Fiammetta Brandajs from Universitat Rovira i Virgili

The current COVID-19 crisis is boosting online activity – everything is increasingly shifting to the digital sphere including mobility.
Which urban areas are most resilient to physical break in mobility?

The latest studies by theorists from different disciplines analyze the bidirectional relationship which links mobilities to digital technology as enabling infrastructure for human mobilities on a large and local scale; as multiplier agent people’s mobile practices; and as an articulating factor of social, physical, mental, and financial relations. Therefore, the ways in which technologies reshape everyday activities and interpersonal relations, as well as connections with others and connections with the wider world, provides a predictive insight into the geographies of the social gap which emerge at territorial level by mapping out “hyper-mobilized” territories rich in technological components that contrast with others “hypo-mobilized” that are poor in functions, and little considered by both public administrations and private investments. This has become increasingly topical with the outbreak of COVID-19, as physical immobility has strongly fostered virtual mobility, revealing a wide disparity among populations in which those with higher income are able to access technology that can ensure work continues digitally during social isolation.

The attempt to analyze the digital disparities within the municipal boundaries of Barcelona is based on the analysis of the synthetic index (Digital Mobility Index), which evaluates both trends in citizens’ usage of technological and digital services and key variables which define the underlying socio-demographic structure of digital development. Finally, a focus on the resulting interdependencies between corporeal and digital mobilities/immobilities based on the study of the mobility of the population during the period of the state of alert.

Key findings

The resulting geographical configuration is illustrated in the two figures below:


Figure 1aDigital Mobility Index and Socio-Demographic Digital Propensity, Barcelona city

Figure 1b Physical Mobility during Covid-19 outbreak in March 2020, Barcelona city


Figure 1a

  • The neighborhoods of the Ciutat Vella district, the most cosmopolitan areas of the city that attract the most tourists, stand out with high Digital Mobility Index values supported by the general high Socio-Demographic Propensity Index value as expected due to a multiplicity of factors such as strong population renewal thanks to ‘globals’ and the ‘mobile population’, who are skilled, networked, and have purchasing power; a mainly tourist-oriented economy that is currently technology-based (hospitality platforms, etc.).
  • There are some constants throughout the urban territory and neighborhoods that seem to have incorporated more than others the idea of mobility through the digital environment in a transversal way by encompassing all its variables. These include the vast area of the most privileged neighborhoods of the north-west and south-east axis (coastline), which are the best equipped and most active in the network.

Figure 1b

  • The neighborhoods of the old town move from a high ranking from a digital point of view to the first displacement category in physical mobility during Covid-19 outbreak. This has highlighted the economic monoculture linked almost exclusively to tourism which has turned them almost totally physically immobile territories.
  • The north-west the areas and the coastline neighborhoods, other top-ranked digital mobility territories that are almost totally immobilized during Covid-19 outbreak suggesting a labor mobility supported by a technological substitution.


The immobility caused by COVID-19 has underlined that those who used to move the most physically are now those who move the least, replacing most of their activities with virtual ones since their mobile lifestyle never fully connected them with the surrounding territory, placing them on an almost self-sufficient technological island.

See full paper: https://doi.org/10.3390/info12100421