The European Tour Operators Association (ETOA) has recently undertaken a campaign to work more closely with city officials in Europe on sustainable tourism solutions. Senior editor Michelle Baran spoke with Nick Greenfield, head of tour operator relations for the ETOA, about how those conversations are progressing.
Q: What was on the table during your recent meeting with Barcelona city officials?
A: We were invited to have a meeting at City Hall with the department that deals with tourism [to look at] how we can bring together elements of the travel industry [and address] issues like how do you deal with congestion, coach access, accommodation. The main thing that came out of that first meeting was to recognize that in City Hall they had to respond a bit to some of the things you see, the [negative] sentiments or feelings, correctly or incorrectly, that people had in the city about tourism.
Q: Why has ETOA decided to engage with local city officials in Europe in this way?
A: At a certain point, you have to listen and understand where they might have legitimate concerns. And that's at different levels in different cities. What Barcelona has done, we welcome a lot. And interestingly, Italy, from a coach-tourism point of view has been a massive headache for operators for quite a long time for all sorts of reasons, including lack of proper infrastructure and introducing new costs overnight when people are planning for a year or more in advance for their trips. And Florence pleasantly surprised us by giving its blessing to a survey we did among residents, asking them what they thought of tourism, what were the positives and negatives, but also asking how much they knew [about tourism]. We are engaging.
Q: Why are some cities in Europe pushing back on tourism?
A: Tourists in general, they don't generally have votes and obviously voters do, and if you're a politician, then you have to think about your voters.
Q: Are there cities where there are policies in place that have negatively impacted tourism numbers?
A: In some cases, it definitely has had an effect.
I spoke to a lady [recently] who said, "Well, we do have some of our clients going into Florence, but we don't take them anymore in an organized way on the coach because we find either we have extra costs added and it's just not worth our while or we then get them to go in by train; but how many of them then choose to do that varies."
Even Rome: It will reach a breaking point, where there will be some people, however much they'd love to go see such an iconic city, they might start reconsidering whether it's worth their while.
Q: What are some of the solutions?
A: There are occasions where it's just an issue of too many people. The Eiffel Tower has this [happen] sometimes, where they literally are at a breaking point. I'm still convinced that there is potential out there to work together. [In Paris], they have some really interesting stats about when they notice a lot of activity on social media in certain spots in the city. They might notice, for example, that the Champs-Elysees is particularly busy in the late morning. If you tell an operator that, they might consider doing it differently. The Vatican, to their credit, started introducing certain later evening visits, and they made operators aware so that they could slowly introduce them into their programs. They also worked on having groups enter only early in the morning.