YOU surely can’t imagine it happening in the beautiful, ancient city of York: protesters thronged outside the Minster where cars were once allowed to drive, carrying banners declaring “York is not for sale” and “We will not be driven out” – an ‘occupation’ in protest at the huge growth in numbers of visitors to the city?
Well, breathe again because it didn’t, at least not in York. But just such a protest DID take place in Barcelona recently when a crowd estimated at 2,000 took over La Rambla, the city’s famed boulevard; ‘famed’, that is, according to the Observer newspaper as I have never been to that Spanish city. And from the sounds of it, some residents would be happy for me NEVER to visit.
One day I hope to disappoint them. My son tells me it is a great city, although the human congestion does sound alarming.
“In 2016 an estimated nine million people stayed in hotels and a further 9 million in holiday apartments,” the Observer reported, adding that a further 12 million day-trippers arrived by car or train and from cruise ships.
Aaghh! Those cursed cruise ships! At least the River Ouse isn’t wide enough to welcome to York those visitor-dumping floating gin palaces that seem intent on ruining the world’s lovelier places.
Living in a tourist city like York as I have for nearly 30 years has been a mixed blessing, but mostly enjoyable. After all, living somewhere other people want to visit seems better than living somewhere no one wants to see.
The downsides? Pressure of people in a small city and the fact that every local shop that closes is turned into a coffee shop, bar or restaurant, a dominance that threatens to topple York into a city designed primarily for tourists.
It also risks flushing out the originality and quirkiness of local shops, to be replaced with national chains which leave York feeling just like any other city. This has already happened to a large degree and no one seems able to do anything about it.
Sometime before we arrived here in 1988, there was a vogue for locals to sport T-shirts or button-badges proclaiming: “I’m not a tourist – I live here.” The fashion for this statement, with its peculiar mix of smugness and annoyance, wasn’t confined to York, of course, but presumably the messengers felt they needed to stand out from the tourist throng.
Anyway, visitor numbers have increased massively since then and York would be a poorer city without tourism and, for all the associated annoyances, the benefits it brings.
This train of thought was partly inspired by an angry column (in the Irish Sunday newspaper for which I edit features two days a week) whose writer despised tourism which he felt was ruining Dublin and offered nothing in return, aside from poorly paid jobs in the service industry.
While he may have a point, his hatred of tourists left me wondering what would happen if there WERE no tourism. Would we all stay at home and never go anywhere? That doesn’t sound very alluring.
The same columnist has an avowed hatred of Airbnb, arguing that the room-sharing website has pushed ordinary people out of Dublin. This might be true, but it did inspire me to stick up for my little Airbnb sideline here in York: the one room we rent out to visitors does not deny a home to any local. It’s a spare room used by visitors from around the world. If we didn’t ‘room-share’ it would stay empty.
We started renting out the room during hard times in 2015, and it has provided a small but useful income. The guests are mostly lovely, although we have endured a few oddballs.
That demo in Barcelona, said to be good-humoured, coincided with a new city law seeking, for the first time, to curb tourism by limiting the number of beds on offer.
I can’t imagine anything similar happening in York, although we occasionally hear rumblings about a ‘visitor tax’.
Someone from the council or the tourist office usually nervously brushes away such a suggestion but is it really such a bad idea? At least that’s one tax I wouldn’t have to pay.
I’m not a tourist – I live here!