How many tourists is too many tourists?

 

Summary

On the Cambridge News’ exchanges with its readers

This relates to this tweet from Cllr George Pippas who in this civic year is Mayor of Cambridge.

Given his civic duties he’s often receiving delegations of visitors from China, civic, business and educational.

At the same time, The Cambridge News was also asking about tourism which lead to this article covering the comments from readers.

Tourists and and residents who might happen to look like they are from a country from where Cambridge gets lots of tourists are not the same thing.

This is why I hate punt touts. Because I happen to have dark skin they think I’m a tourist and I got sick of being continually pestered by them. Oh – they are also breaking the law. (That doesn’t mean Cambridge doesn’t need to overhaul how it manages punting and other activities on the river – it does).

I then read this by Colin Wiles

What makes me nervous about ‘anti-tourist’ protests is that they can very easily become anti-foreigner and anti ‘people that look like me’ protests. And Cambridge is my home – I grew up here.

As history goes, tourism in Cambridge is relatively recent. The text in the Twitterphoto is from 1950:

The problem is not the tourists, and dare I say it, not the numbers of them alone: it’s the model of tourism – mass consumer tourism.

This was something featured in The Guardian here recently.

Cambridge is a living, breathing city. It’s not a theme park and it’s not a film studio.

The organisations that bring in the tourists – and furthermore the language students and the much-maligned ‘cram college’ students don’t directly bear the negative externalities of their economic activities.

Former Eton economics tutor Geoff Riley created this guide on negative externalities. It’s written for an A-level economics audience, but the symptoms of what local residents in Cambridge complain about are negative externalities of the economic activities of the firms and organisations mentioned above.

My take is that the fault lies with central government – they have not given local councils here the administrative structures, legal powers or the financial freedoms (tax and spend) to deal with the externalities we face. (See my last blogpost here for more on this).

The problem for the past couple of decades is that Cambridge has not had the infrastructure to cope with the rising number of tourists and private students now studying in the city. Speculative developers have bought up plots of land and converted them into private student accommodation – often seen at the expense of social housing that the city desperately needs. I’m technically one of the ‘hidden homeless’ living back with my parents but who would rather like to have my own place if only I could afford it. But again, I don’t blame the students, young people or even the tourists. The blame here rests with ministers.

Transport infrastructure one of the solutions

One of the reasons why I like Cambridge Connect Light Rail is that it provides solutions both for the traffic congestion problem, and for raising revenue from the visitors to the city – in particular the day trippers. Here’s me on traffic issues very recently.

Traffic in Cambridge – not new, but now unsustainable?

I recorded that video after getting zero sleep the night before – hence the dark rings under my eyes. #SleepFailClub.

The point with a light rail underground network is that you can combine it with restrictions on tourist traffic coming into Cambridge. Bar tourist and private coaches coming into the city and get them to deposit their passengers at out of town/end of line park and ride stations so they can buy light rail tickets into town. Cambridge now has over 7million visitors per year. Suddenly you are making money that can be reinvested in transport – or whose future revenues can be rolled up into bonds on the finance markets to pay for at least some of the infrastructure in the first place.

Using transport planning to support culture and leisure industries.

For those of you that like Cambridge (the town) history, I wrote about the history of The Grafton Centre here. A couple of decades ago, many bus routes stopped at the shopping centre. Very few do today, and that has had a big impact on the vibrancy of the place. Yet flip the whole thing on its head and there is an opportunity to use future transport plans to increase the viability of a whole host of existing (or even future) attractions. For example one of the proposed lines out to East Cambridge could support the proposed Cambridge Ice Arena ice rink. Looking at postcode data from a number of venues in Cambridge at a hack event years ago, we discovered that the distances people were travelling to see shows in Cambridge were significantly greater than we had anticipated. Thus if people are already travelling those distances, does it not make more sense to invest in new public transport infrastructure to get people off roads and onto light rail? Note many of the venues have their performances in the evenings, thus making the services more viable for the nighttime economy.

It’s not just the driving and rail – it’s the walking and cycling too. All Saints Cambridge is one of our city’s hidden gems. The reason why it struggles is because the road it is down is off the beaten track. The pavement is far too narrow, too many buses and lorries go down it and it is not sign-posted. Yet the interior of the building is some of the most splendid Victorian era you’ll see in the city, if not the country.

What surveys have been done of tourists and language school students?

We’re in the middle of peak language school season and tour group season. I read one comment complaining about seeing groups of disinterested teens and tweens being dragged around the city by tour guides. I wonder if anyone has done research into what the students and young people on those tours and courses get out of them. Is there something unique about visiting/studying here or is it just another place to go shopping and have fun? If it’s the latter, do Cambridge’s institutions need to aim for a different market while inviting somewhere else that has the ‘shopping and partying infrastructure’ to set itself up as that vibrant place for young life-loving people? I remember in my early teens how boring Cambridge felt compared to our family friends who lived just outside Stevenage. In the early 1990s we thought Stevenage was great – you could go bowling, ice skating, and go swimming in a pool with a wave machine! You couldn’t do that in Cambridge in those days.

The other thing that worries me is that Cambridge’s young people are missing out on socialising with the young people from abroad on those courses. We don’t organise systematically joint activities and events. Personally this is where I’d like to see one of Cambridge’s business groups taking a lead on this and having a levy on the language schools – even a voluntary contribution to start with, to fund activities that can be put on for all young people in our city free of charge. That way it makes them accessible for families on very low incomes. Don’t think poverty doesn’t exist in Cambridge; it does.

“A different model for tourism?”

It’s a global issue. Here’s Barcelona. Here’s Venice. We learnt about the damage of unrestricted tourism in GCSE Geography in the mid-1990s. Do you think those t-shirts in the tourist shops with ‘Cambridge’ printed on them were made locally? Exactly. What are the alternatives to ‘the selfie, the snack and sod-off’ tourism? You’ve seen the articles of selfies in sacred and/or sombre places, the latter for example sites of crimes against humanity. Those are obviously extreme examples. But my point here is as a city about what we want tourists, visitors and language students to take away from their time here, rather than just thinking about the bottom line. Unfortunately while all of the incentives and economic structures are all about growth and profits, we’ll continue down this socially and environmentally destructive model of tourism. And not just in Cambridge. That cannot be good for anyone – including the tourists.

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3 thoughts on “How many tourists is too many tourists?

  1. There was an interesting point being made about tourists “not spending enough”. How much do tourists on day coach trips, with a tour guide that isn’t local, contribute? Many might not even eat here, or may have a packed lunch provided by the tour company. Are the coaches lining Queens Road doing the city any good?

  2. Are any of the coaches lining Queens Road (or parking in the bus stops elsewhere) doing any good? Having far fewer coaches driving into the city centre is something the council needs to work on, in my view. Maybe make it cheaper to park in the P+R sites and expensive the further in you get? If they used local guides (Blue Badged?) and ate in local restaurants too, that’d be far better, I suspect.

  3. Brilliant piece as always. Topical indeed.. I’m in Italy.. . More when back next week. All best

    Sent from my iPhone Penny.

    >

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