Tourist cities: from benefits to threats

Mass tourism has transformed the nature of many cities to the detriment of their inhabitants. A European project led by the URV is seeking solutions to prevent the social exclusion of the most vulnerable groups living in these destinations

Whereas at one time living in a city that is a popular tourist destination was a guarantee of a certain standard of living, it has now become a threat for the local population, who now have to contend with expensive and limited access to housing, precarious working conditions, overcrowded public services and spaces and an ever increasing cost of living. The European project SMARTDEST has been set up to deal with these phenomena. It is coordinated and led by the researcher Antonio Russo from the URV’s Department of Geography and for the next three years it will seek to provide solutions to these problems and to propose public policies that prevent the social exclusion of citizens in affected cities. The project will also look at how cities will deal with the new mobility rules that will mark the crisis of COVID-19, and whether this will mean turning urban centers into more inclusive or more democratic.

The most vulnerable groups in society particularly suffer from the worst effects of the ‘touristification’ of cities. The promise of ‘smart cities’ able to improve the lives of its citizens in a framework of eco-efficiency and inclusion has not materialised. Digital technologies seem to favour the needs of tourists over local people in the competition for urban resources. Consequently, the SMARTDEST project aims to help define a political agenda so that cities can take tourist movements and their effects seriously at all levels of government, and to extract the potential of social innovation deriving from citizen involvement to create more resilient communities.

Over the course of the coming three years the project will analyse the role of tourist movements and other forms of temporarily inhabiting the city as actions that transform the nature of urban environments. It will also examine the phenomenon of social exclusion, which is increasingly prevalent in tourist cities and which results from social services being pushed to the peripheries of the city. Furthermore, social stakeholders in the eight cities that are to be included in the project will collaborate to study how local people organise themselves to resist the effects of tourism. Citylabs will also be created, these being think tanks intended foster the participatory design of solutions focused on the needs of the community and to propose innovative political solutions. Finally, the results will be transferred to the locally affected entities and administrations.

Pilot studies in Barcelona, Venice, Jerusalem and Amsterdam

The project will initially study four cities chosen for a pilot study: Barcelona, Venice, Jerusalem and Amsterdam, which already have a wide range of initiatives to promote social inclusion in relation to the development of tourism and which are experimenting with smart solutions to deal with the excessive numbers of tourists that they receive. Another four cities will be included in a later phase.

The ultimate goal of the project is to have a social impact by proposing new forms of working at a European level in order to find strategic solutions to pressure from tourism on social, political and economic sectors. The idea is to share with European actors and the communities involved a programme of activities based on knowledge transfer and constructive dialogue.

The SMARTDEST project has been funded by the Horizon 2020 programme with a total budget of 3.1 million euros and it will last for three years until January 2023 . It is a consortium of 12 members of university academic staff from 7 European Union countries and one associated country, all under the leadership of the Universitat Rovira Virgili. The project researchers come from a wide range of academic backgrounds, including geography, tourism, planning, sociology, economics, communications and anthropology, and they all have lengthy experience of working on collaborative international research projects.

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