All the best to HCTs and guides

This is a quick plug for Hidden City Tours, which came to life during the build up to the RTD7 conference and launched on the post-RTD7 weekend, with several RTD7 delegates among the first tour group led in English.  Not only will these tours offer an alternative to canned tours of the city, divulging insights into the social realities of Barcelona’s Old Town past and present, they will also be contributing to better lives for their local guides, as they make their way back from living in difficult circumstances.


Spoilt by tourists (again)?

BBC's Fast-Track asks "Is Barcelona being spoilt by tourists?"

BBC’s Fast-Track asks: “Is Barcelona being spoilt by tourists?”

“Is Barcelona being spoilt by tourists?”  This is a question that many Barcelona locals have been asking for some time.  In fact, some minds were made up long ago.

It’s been two years since BBC’s Fast-Track came through to gauge the balance of opinion on tourism and everyday life in and around Barcelona’s “Old Town” and other visitor hotspots.  Since then, there is perceptibly less grumbling about what, how and why tourism detracts from the city, which says something about public awareness of the economic benefits tourism brings to the city–no one in Spain right now wants to knock a trade that continues to grow and provide jobs.

But the issues surrounding the negative impacts of tourism don’t go away.  Do tourism activities and tourist paraphernalia now dominate sense of place in Barcelona’s “historical centre”?

Ensuring residents enjoy liveable places—a liveable city—can often go hand-in-hand with better places to visit.  So how can the remaining local charm and local life—those sources of increasing visitor interest (as well as distinct market advantage)—be sustained and nourished so that, further down the line, Barcelona can continue to reap the benefits of visitor arrivals and spend?

These are the issues that I hope will be thoroughly explored at RTD7.  I’m also really looking forward to hearing the likes of destination manager and marketers, Pere Duran and Mario Rubert speak on these issues, as well as the very observant human geographer, Jose Antonio Donaire.

Can the RTD7 programme–and the ensuing Declaration–help chart a more sustainable course for a city that continues to prosper from tourism?


“The Relief of Relief”

"When this old world starts getting me down..."

“When this old world starts getting me down…”

If you love human diversity, Barcelona ain’t a bad place to be, particularly as much of that diversity can be spanned in an evening’s walk, slipping through neighbourhoods of various affluence, textures, smells, noise and colour. But this is enabled by apartment-living and jeek-by-jowl population density. Here, a house with a garden arouses curiousity. And you occasionally see where a long-term resident has acheived an abundance of mature greenery in a balcony-sized biosphere. Otherwise, the trees that line the neighbourhood streets and arterial avenues are a mere distraction; an ambience creator shot through by the metal menace, noise and fumes of a vast colony of motorists that thread in, out and around this city incessantly, daily. Which is why, when I walk up into the very hills we could blame for Barcelona’s urban intensity, I so clearly recognise Robert MacFarlane’s sentiment, “the relief of relief” (in The Wild Places).


When tourism parodies places

McCarthy's Bar, by Pete McCarthy

McCarthy’s Bar, by Pete McCarthy

McCarthy’s Bar keeps revealing on-the-trail observations that chime with my own concerns about how some places seem to be losing the fight to maintain their character and distinctiveness in the face of tourism and “inward investment”.  His book was a “Number One Bestseller” so I may be among many others with similar concerns:

“Now the Irish economy is so driven by tourism, will every special little place end up like this, as they see what’s to be earned by marketing their idiosyncrasies, leaping aboard the Celtic Tiger, and getting the builders in? A successful tourism industry can quickly turn itself into a parody of itself.”

Clearly this is pre-“crisis” (the book is copyrighted 2000), but the same sentiments can be applied to other times and places.  Just think about the comments you have perhaps heard in relation to the charm of Havana, Cuban people, other places in Cuba, and what lies in store for them once the country “opens up”.

So why is it that when the money blows through some places–investment (chicken or egg?) or tourist cash (egg or chicken?) that it seems to get spent on making them poorer in terms of charm and interesting detail?  Is there some kind of underlying mechanism (“globalisation”?) that makes this inevitable?  How can a place–i.e. the people of that place–conserve its charm and distinctiveness without “selling out” to moneyed “others” and the tourism entourage?  How should destination managers and promoters best communicate the said  idiosyncracies of the place their livelihoods are set to be based on, if at all? Perhaps, in fact, these little sources of charm and distinctiveness should be left to personal discovery and real-world encounters, with communication being equally diffuse thereafter, via post-trip musings via the digital ether and maybe even…  in books.


Real versus contrived places

In Titanic Belfast – it didn’t rock my boat travel writer Catherine Mack contrasts beautiful, “real
breathing spaces [that] are part of our living heritage”, with a designed (or contrived) visitor attraction built on tragedy and destination marketing thought:

Titanic Belfast Visitor Attraction

Reading her piece had me balancing the following:

  • investment in the places to date
  • investment needed to maintain the differing attractions (thereby benefiting the communities most closely involved)
  • the cost to the visitor of visiting (“entrance fee”)
  • enjoyment and illumination
  • underlying motives–which do we really want to be sustained three or four generations from now?

It’s a close-to-the-heart piece, so perhaps the most pertinent question is…  Which of the places she throws into contrast are most likely to fill locals–and maybe even visitors–with pride?


Cervezeros crafting “better places”

As well as having an interest in how different places pulse, I also love following the craft beer movement, whether that’s here in Barcelona/Catalunya/Spain/Iberia/the Med, or further beyond. So my interest leapt when I read of the marriage of both:

Modern Times exists to make extraordinary beer. But it’s also an actor in the life of this city. It has a responsibility to shape its own environment, to constructively engage with the city upon which it relies. One of the ways it will do that is by helping to transform San Diego into a better, more liv[e]able place.

The wonder of the Internet returns…  I have found a kindred spirit way out west in California!

Read Transforming San Diego if you think the liquid poetry and social catalyst of good beer can have anything to do with shaping better places to live in and better places to visit. And please comment here on what you see as the real and possible connections between the two.


Sensing outstanding natural beauty

The remarkable CoaST team and people at Tamar Valley bring on sense of place to better appreciate the value of this AONB (Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty, in Britain) and hopefully draw appreciative visitors to the area too.

For illumination visit www.coastproject.co.uk/theland/tamarvalleyasenseofplace.


Cultivating connections between the young and “old land”

News from Kangaroo Valley, New South Wales (Australia), of an initiative that will actively seek to cultivate sense of place, particularly among the young.  Run as a World Responsible Tourism Day activity, it will seek to foster connectiveness to nature using Aboriginal belief systems.

Organiser, Christopher Warren, writes “research confirms that individuals who have pro-environmental values also hold a strong connectivity to nature, and are frequently positive thinkers. Methods [therefore] need to be found to build connectivity to nature which in turn can influence pro-environmental social practice and behaviour”.

To achieve this highly intangible yet very valuable prize, Chris and his colleagues at a local school and in an aboriginal community will try “to determine if elements of traditional environmental care can be transferred to school children [to] successfully build pro-environmental values through connection”.

The 2012 World Responsible Tourism Day marks just the start of this very local action–the activity will run for at least a year and seek to engage youngsters through workbooks, encounters, reflections and story-writing.  To find out how this progresses, and perhaps contribute your ideas and moral support, follow Chris and colleagues here.


Trade-offs in “capital public spaces”

A piece in The Economist pitches New York against London in terms of progress on “bettering” public spaces.  More usefully, it provides an overview of some of the key dynamics shaping today’s “capital public spaces” as well as people’s relationships with them, i.e.:

  • continued pedestrianisation and trading off visitor (tourist) interests against the interests of car-dependent or business-owning locals;
  • the insidious privatisation of public space;
  • place-making changes shaped by commercial motives, not community needs and sentiments;
  • the forces of power and control shaping public space.

Decent public space became an economic necessity.

For the washed, who quite like shopping and safety, such space is a great deal better than nothing.

The problem comes down to governance. While New York’s mayor is all-powerful, London’s shares power with 32 boroughs, which often have conflicting agendas.


Memories of Down Under and visiting the “real” Australia today

When I was in Australia, over ten years ago now, aboriginal Australia seemed largely absent from the coastal cities of the south and south-east.  Not an uncommon sensation for newcomers and visitors, I suspect.

It wasn’t until I visited Darwin and other parts of the Northern Territory that I felt I had arrived in the Australia of my preconceptions, as well as the Australia of certain desires I perhaps held at the time.  I had heard accounts of horrific events and read about the chronically dislocating effects of colonial and other incomer changes wrought on the aboriginal people of Australia.  I had witnessed a couple of saddening sights first-hand too.  But I felt that at least here I was closer to Australia’s soul, where people’s connections with their environment were “real, deep and distinctive”, as in steeped in ancestry and a profound understanding of the land.

Then again, I might have been “place dreaming”.  You see I was also aware that those Australians who helped impart all this to me were in fact white descendants of Europeans, particularly a remarkable friend of my parents, the late Lance Brooks.  They too had intimate connections with this part of Australia.

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