Future Making in the Anthropocene Blog | Mass tourism in historical cities

A crowd of tourists in La Rambla street in Barcelona. Photocredit: Nikolaus Bader: https://pixabay.com/images/id-4919890/
A crowd of tourists in La Rambla street in Barcelona. Photocredit: Nikolaus Bader: https://pixabay.com/images/id-4919890/

Tourism is a sector with potential for sustainable economic and social growth however these benefits come with a price: mass tourism. Mass tourism has proved to have a great impact on our relationship with our living environment and its heritage values. What role can heritage
values play in this global phenomenon? And how can heritage discourse and studies shed light on its challenges?

Written by: Azadeh Arjomand Kermani

Tourism is seen to create interaction with locals and their culture and promote knowledge exchange while financially contributing to community development. With the help of Low-cost travel, p2p accommodation, and easily available digital information, a large part of the global population is now capable of travelling and experiencing different cultures which have resulted in mass tourism. Mass tourism is not characterised by specific numbers and values. Rather, mass tourism occurs when there are too many tourists for a destination to comfortably accommodate. We hear and read about protests in which the residents asked tourists to go home because people feel like they have to compete with the ‘invaders’ basically coming and not letting them live their ordinary daily lives . This happens in many cities across the world.

In this article, I am talking with Tinatin Meparishvili, PhD candidate of the Heriland Programme who is currently conducting her research on “Mass tourism in Rome” at Newcastle University. With previous academic and work experiences gained in Georgia, Germany, the USA, Egypt, and Italy, she chose Heriland to become a part of an innovative European training network on cultural heritage in relation to spatial planning with a diverse array of research conducted in a heritage context. Her study focus is Mass Tourism and its impact on historic cities, their living and built heritage, the sense of place and sense of ownership of the place . Meparishvili discusses how “Mass tourism emerged as a representation of ‘democratisation’ of travel among the industrial working class. It has brought the idea of accessibility to the edge. Now, host communities must compete with tourists that invade their living spaces”. The democratisation of access to cultural heritage is an ideal value, it can provide equal opportunities to various groups of society to access and experience tangible and intangible cultural and historical values of different nations and cultures. However, according to Meparishvili, we should define the thin line between the democratisation of access and the right to an uninterrupted daily life of permanent users of the place. In her opinion, the competition is not only about access to daily needs but also competition with real estate prices. A lot of times local real estate prices and services or even use of infrastructures in touristic areas are higher than in other areas of the city. Thus, “people feel their place is sold back to them for a higher price, and this is very frustrating for them.”

Crowded San Angelo just before the start of the Covid pandemic in 2019. Photo Credit: Tinatin Meparishvili

To control mass tourism and its negative effects a few European cities have introduced regulations, trying to redesign the visitors’ economy.  Tourist tax, preferential access to heritage sites for locals and demarketing destinations have been some of those strategies practised in different parts of the world. In Rome for example the local authorities are looking for more restrictions for short rental places. If there are fewer Airbnbs and peer to peer accommodation in the historic centre of Rome, making it slowly more elite/sustainable, it will naturally cause less tourists flow into the centre as a lot of people will not be able to afford a four or five-star hotel and the city will naturally receive what they call a high-quality tourist that is willing to spend more money. But then the question is whether the accessibility and democratisation of heritage.  Meparishvili calls the discussion on mass tourism and heritage ‘very controversial’: “So once again heritage will be very much like an expensive product such as an iPhone that has many desirable functions, but not many can afford this expensive phone and who can afford it, will appreciate it.”

The first phase of Meparishvili’s research started in Rome as a case study in late October 2019, right before the pandemic struck. She remembers how ‘the urban cacophony on the busy streets of Rome was almost as frantic as during the high season. For Romans, competing with tourists for access to the city had become part of their daily lives. Locals were questioning the economic benefits of the tourism industry.’ Then the virus erupted, Italy stepped into a lockdown. The lively centre of the ‘Eternal City’ turned into a ghost town. Tourist facilities went empty. Locals who commuted to the historic centre to work were locked away in their homes in the suburbs. While the grass grew from the pavement of the famous piazzas, the economy declined. Closedown for many restaurants and cafes turned out to be permanent as they can afford the financial losses. While suburban areas strived to keep ordinary life going, central tourist areas seemed abandoned. Many people lost jobs, especially those working in the service sector. Meparishvili believes ‘this period gave government institutions and the private sector enough time to analyse the role of tourism and reimagine travel in all its forms. Maybe this drawback can be used as a starting point to redefine the industry from which the business, the communities and the environment can benefit.’  

Piazza Navona in Rome before and after the covid pandemic in 2019. Photo credit: Tinatin Meparishvili

After having completed a year and a half as a Herilander, Meparishvili has witnessed dramatic changes in her field of research. Mass Tourism, which was one of the most discussed issues is now seen differently. ‘Observing and examining the outcomes resulting from the pandemic-induced standstill allows me to evaluate the pros and cons of Mass Tourism and its influence on the heritage urban environment in a globalised world. In addition, it gives me a baseline to compare before and after the pandemic and the impact of tourism on locals’ life.” Meparishvili believes the pandemic and the global lockdown has been an awakening for many countries, whose economy has not been diversified. The dependency on tourism, the sector that challenges sustainability and is unreliable cannot be the only source of revenue.

In her research, Meparishvili is investigating if commodification is a guaranteed outcome of Mass Tourism and observes the transformation of the sense of place and people’s relation to the place in a touristified environment. To be able to address these issues, the dynamics of heritage values must be studied. She argues that the economic value of the heritage urban landscape should not be compared to the expenditures that the government makes to enhance heritage as a product. The economic benefits must be contrasted with the toll that communities pay with the socio-cultural values of their place. Meparishvili believes still more actions have to be made to balance the tourist economy to benefit from contributing to the renewal and maintenance of the facilities shared by locals and tourists. ‘This is why economic and socio-cultural values have to be balanced. Hearing the voices of all the stakeholders in the decision-making process is crucial. Sustainability is hard to practice unless all the key actors are on board.’ The focus of her research is the local community of Rione Monti (a historic neighbourhood of Rome). By studying the transformation of values of the inhabitants and the commuters of the Rione, Meparishvili wants to unpack the transformation process of the urban heritage of the historic city of Rome. Contextualising the changes that took place and generalising the concrete findings in the case of Rome can contribute towards the discourse on the assessment of heritage values in a touristified historic urban environment. 

Grocery store on via della Madonna Dei Monti, owned by the same family for several decades. Photo credit: Tinatin Meparishvili

She emphasises that practising sustainable tourism in a particular cultural environment requires an in-depth understanding of the context. The characteristics of stakeholders differ from culture to culture and their societal roles in managing processes depend on the structure of their community. The solution or remedy for controlling mass tourism and its negative effects in Meparishvili’s opinion differs from case to case. “We cannot find one recipe for mass tourism around the world. The actions in Venice would be very different from Rome for example. Venice is already almost empty of its original residents and is becoming a museum town while Rome still has its ordinary daily life and residents are interested in living and maintaining their historical districts. But even historic districts within Rome differ by what their state of touristification is like. Once a lower class neighbourhood Trastevere, has turned into a romanticised must see, must experience tourist attractions. The Monti neighbourhood, on the other hand, still preserves the sense of what Monticiani call ‘the village life’. Once visitors wander around the corner of the Colosseum, they discover a lively neighbourhood, with artisanal shops, markets, narrow streets and people still knowing each other by name. The fear of these people is indeed losing the sense of place and the sense of relations they have known for centuries to globalisation and to tourism.” In her research on Rome Meparishvili  has been working closely with the community of Monti, she conducted interviews with different stakeholders with “the people who have constant access to the space, the permanent users of the place. If I were studying Venice then I would put more emphases on tourists as key stakeholders, as the main community of urban heritage there. But in case of Monti in Rome, the local community that is the actual essence of the urban heritage and living traditions of the Eternal City still survives.” Thus her goal remains to “hear the voices of all local stakeholders of Monti and understand how the cultural value of heritage has transformed while their urban space had slowly turned into a commodity.”

Which societal challenges in the context of heritage, landscape and the built environment would you like us to address in our future articles? Please get in touch at @Future4Heritage on Twitter or send an email

This article is part of a series ‘Future Making in the Anthropocene’ that focuses on imagining better-balanced future scenarios for European cities and landscapes. made possible by the generous support of the Creative Industries Fund NL. Information on Tinatin Meparishvili’s research can be accessed on the Heriland website.


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