The ups and downs of life in a tourist city…

THE protesters thronged outside York Minster where cars were once allowed to drive. They carried banners reading “York is not for sale” and “We will not be driven out” during an “occupation” in protest at the huge growth in numbers of visitors to the city…

And if you can’t recall this happening, that’s because it didn’t, at least not in York. Such a protest did recently take place in Barcelona where a crowd estimated at 2,000 took over the Rambla, the city’s famed boulevard. That “famed” is taken on trust from the Observer newspaper as I have never been to the Spanish city. And it sounds as if some of its residents would be happy for me never to visit. I hope to disappoint them in this wish as my son tells me it is a great city, although the human congestion does sound alarming.

“In 2016 an estimated 9 million people stayed in hotels and a further 9 million in holiday apartments,” the Observer reported last Sunday, adding that a further 12 million day-trippers arrived by car and train or on cruise ships.

Ah, the cursed cruise ships. At least the River Ouse isn’t wide enough to accommodate those visitor-dumping floating towns that seem intent on ruining the world’s lovelier places.

Being a resident of a tourist city is a mixed blessing, but mostly I have enjoyed living in York for nearly 30 years now. It’s a pleasant city with many interesting facets, and living somewhere other people want to visit seems better than living somewhere no one wants to visit.

The downsides include the 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. I like coffee shops and bars, and occasionally visit restaurants, but their dominance does threaten to topple York into a city designed primarily for tourists.

It also risks flushing out the originality and quirkiness of local shops, and replacing those qualities 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 wasn’t confined to York, and may well have come from New York, although pinning down its origins proved difficult by the time-trusted means of Google.

That slogan was a peculiar mix perhaps of smugness and annoyance, but presumably those carrying the message on their person felt they needed to stand out from the tourist throng. I still can’t work out if it was unfriendly – which in general is not York’s way – or just making a point.

Anyway, visitor numbers have increased massively since then and York would be a poorer city without tourism and the benefits – plus associated annoyances – it brings.

This train of thought was partly inspired by an angry column in the Irish Sunday newspaper I work on for two days a week, editing the stories. This 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 as he feels the room-sharing website has pushed ordinary people out of Dublin. This may be true, but it did inspire me to stick up for my little Airbnb side-line here in York. The one room we rent out to visitors does not deny a home to anyone 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 march in Barcelona was said to be good-humoured. It coincided with the passing of a new law by the city council which, for the first time, seeks to curb tourism by limiting the number of beds on offer.

I can’t imagine anything similar happening in York, although occasionally you hear rumblings about a visitor tax.

Usually someone from the council or the tourist office nervously brushes away such a suggestion; but is it really a bad idea? At least that’s one tax I wouldn’t have to pay.

I’m not a tourist – I live here.

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