Why Popular Tourist Spots Will Be Increasingly Privatized — And Access Will be Limited

Although I have lived in Colorado almost continuously for 30 years, only on 3 or 4 occasions have I visited our most famous tourist attraction: Rocky Mountain National Park.

I avoid RMNP because that’s where the tourists go. Traffic on the highways to the park is usually heavy, and tourists are found nearly everywhere inside the park. Needless to say, if one is looking for a quiet spot on an alpine mountainside, it’s better to stick to the obscure areas in other parts of the state few non-natives bother to visit.

There are enormous upsides to tourists, of course. They pour their money into the local economy and tax coffers. This is great for local businesses. But for those locals who are seeking the same experiences the tourists are, it’s often preferable to seek out locations where the tourists aren’t.

Avoiding tourists is easy enough to do in a place where forests and mountains are spread out of thousands of square miles. But what to do when tourist crowds are unavoidable?

Thus, for some local residents in popular tourist areas, the non-material costs of large numbers of tourists outweigh the material benefits, even when the tourist-based revenues look great on paper.

As tourist totals grow worldwide along with the current economic expansion, this issue has become of increasing importance for residents in the world’s more popular tourist destinations. In Italy, for example, this is no mere academic question.

Venice in particular has started the feel the strain of huge tourism numbers.Although tourists have long had to pay for various museums and private, enclosed areas, the city is now talking about charging tourists to access even the city’s central square — Piazza San Marco.

According to advocates for a tourist access fee, the city suffers when cruise ships bring in large groups of tourists who then crowd into Piazza San Marco, disrupting local commerce and creating inconvenience for the locals. What’s worse, these tourists, it is claimed, do not spend enough at local shops and retailers to cover the material and immaterial costs of their visit.

Venetians are now looking for a way to manage the flow of tourists and their impact on the quality of life of the locals.

Other small locations have explored the idea of restricting tourist access. The small mountain villages of Civita di Bagnoregio and Polignano a Mare now charge for access as well.

Local residents are exempt: “Of course residents can come and go as they like,” the mayor notes. They “don’t have to buy the ticket.”

These schemes, not surprisingly, are not without their critics. And not all locals agree.One local business group in Polignano a Mare averred “Installing turnstiles and charging people to enter one of the most famous historic villages in Italy is detrimental to what should be a public place,” The main square, the group tells us “should be part of the cultural heritage of the whole world.”

It’s not hard to be sympathetic to a business group in this case. Naturally, business owners who benefit from tourist crowds are unlikely to appreciate what is essentially a tax imposed on tourists which both reduces the tourists’ disposable income while limiting their numbers overall.

That’s bad for business.

Note that this is not the argument, made, however. Instead, the argument is a very vague and amorphous appeal to cultural heritage.

The claim that these areas of town are the “cultural heritage of the whole world” implies that these physical spaces belong to everyone. And, if something belongs to everyone, then it belong to no one.

The tourists themselves, who of course want free and unfettered access to these spaces, make similar claims.

In her article “Why I’ll Boycott Venice If it Charges for Entry,” Jackie Bryant complains that charging for access to Venice’s main piazza would make it “another pre-packaged, commodified experience to our already over-marketed-to lives.” To charge a fee would be to limit “access to a literal and figurative representation of a city’s life force.”

I’ll leave it up to you, dear reader, to ponder what a city’s “life force” is, but it’s pretty clear Bryant thinks a fee or tax is a bad thing. Moreover, she also appears to make the case that urban public spaces ought not be “commodified,” owned, controlled, or characterized by any limitations on access.

Basically, Bryant makes the case that she deserves just as much access to the public spaces and infrastructure of Venice as do the locals who live there, pay taxes, and have much more skin in the game than any tourist.

At the UK’s Independent, Justin Francis has noticed the aggressiveness of this position:

This arrogance in tourism extends to turning a blind eye to the disruption that such massive numbers of tourists cause to local lives. Venetians are becoming notorious for being hostile to tourists, but have these tourists paused to consider why a local might feel that way?

In my view, the local person has more right to enjoy walking freely through their city – where they live and pay taxes – than a tourist. This is their right. As such, Venice must protect these rights and ensure that the crowds are not so vast as to destroy the ability of local people (or tourists, for that matter) to enjoy the square.

After all, there isn’t anything special about charging people to see a popular tourist destination. Most museums, for example, charge tourists for access, even if those museums contain artifacts that everyone agrees are part of “the cultural heritage of the whole world.”

100 years ago this was not the issue it was today simply because the number of tourists was much, much smaller. Traveling to Venice, for example, was expensive, and few ordinary people had either the money or the leisure time to go there on vacation. The fact was that under these conditions there simply was no practical need to control tourist access. The wear and tear on the infrastructure produced by the small number of tourists was not large enough to be worth the trouble and inconvenience of controlling access.

Matters are different today, of course, and the city now experiences populations of tourists never imagined by the people who built the city and its public spaces.

Privatize the Tourist Spots

In the real world, though, in order for these places and artifacts to be preserved, they must have some type of ownership — complete with restrictions on access for non-owners.

But how to establish ownership?

Cleary, in many cases, public squares and similar spaces already have owners, either in the form of the local government or some association of local property owners who exercise joint ownership of the common areas in question.

That is, these places were never really unowned. It’s just that access was never a significant problem until tourist numbers reached the volume we now see today.

Once ownership is established, how to control access?

This could be done through a small fee for entry for tourists, or by establishing a quota for the total number of people allowed in per day. This latter option could even be done by lottery, which means access could be determined on a basis other than “ability or willingness to pay.”

The end result either way would be a decline in the total number of people using the public space, leading to lower infrastructure costs and lower non-monetary costs imposed on the locals.

But even if all these were administered without a hitch, we’d still, no doubt, hear complaints from those who don’t want  limitations on tourist access. Small business owners who depend on tourist access, for instance, would be hurt by such measures. These people, after all, may view large numbers of tourists as but a tiny nuisance — or no nuisance at all — given the benefits of commerce with them.

As with so many similar issues — such as neighborhood limits on what you can grow in your front yard — there is no easy way to construct a policy that pleases everyone.

In this case, then, the answer lies in hyper-localization of policy. Clearly, if the tourist problem centers around a few specific locations in a city, it would be a terrible idea to adopt an city-wide policy that imposes tourist taxes everywhere in the city. (Murray Rothbard was right when he proposed splitting New York City into dozens of independent neighborhoods.)

The answer lies not in general “scalable” policy, but in small-scale, highly localized policies that address specific locations. This, of course, is what would happen in a truly private market, where no single entity would enjoy a city-wide monopoly.

A highly-localized policy would also allow those affected to relocate away from the area affected by the new tax or quota. Meanwhile, limits on tourists in one area would drive tourists to other areas of the city, possibly to areas that would love to have more tourist traffic.

Ultimately, though, the idea that every public street, plaza, or waterway belongs to “the world” is a fantasy that creates unsustainable strains on local populations and local  infrastructure. As the world’s population grows, access to what we think of as “public” spaces will need to be managed more carefully — which means access will need to be controlled. Once access is controlled, these locations will then have undergone a form of “privatization,” in which access remains “public” or open to some, but closed to outsiders and those deemed to be non-owners. That doesn’t sound very romantic to a tourist, of course, but it’s the reality we now live in.

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