‘Look at tourism as an integral part of making cities better’
Ko Koens delivers inaugural address on reframing urban tourism
The coronavirus has turned tourism in cities upside down. The empty streets and squares invited us to think about how we deal with large numbers of visitors. Will we go back to our old ways in the future, or do we want change? Ko Koens, professor of New Urban Tourism, argues for the latter. In his inaugural lecture on 2 June, he outlined the possibilities of a radically different perspective. Look at tourism as an integral part of multiple processes that can make cities better. ‘We’re doing this in Rotterdam with the motto that actions speak louder than words. Together with students, we are exploring the possibilities in practice.’
Ko delivered his speech at a symbolic moment and in a symbolic place. Behind him, the windows of BlueCity – a hub for pioneers in the circular economy – offered a view of the sunny Rotterdam city centre awakening from its lockdown. With guests attending both from the Netherlands and from abroad, all eyes were on the brand-new professor – either online or at least 1.5 metres away. We are dealing with the coronavirus, but we are also looking ahead. How can tourism start developing again? Led by moderator Samira Ben Messaoud, Ko shared with us his vision for the future.
‘There is a real need for change in tourism in cities,’ Ko says. ‘I have seen many proposed visions, but very few strategies and plans. It would therefore come as no surprise to me if we were to fall back into the old routine.’ Ko calls for a radical, systemic change in which tourism can have a positive impact on cities. ‘This change requires a holistic view in which we see tourism as an integral part of the city, allowing us to open a new door to a new perspective to make cities better.’
More than economics
Such a radical change in urban tourism is not easy to get off the ground, Ko warns. ‘Tourism is often seen as a separate sector that is unrelated to the urban environment, but stakeholders should actually be working together to develop something good for the city. Many stakeholders also want to preserve what’s left, and companies are now mainly trying to survive this crisis.’ Still, this change is worth the struggle. ‘At the moment, tourism is viewed too much in terms of economic value. In other words: what’s in it for the city? But not everyone in the city benefits. Cities are also in danger of becoming a commodity that people have to pay for.’
If tourism is viewed as an integral part of the city that generates more than just economic value, this can lead to beautiful initiatives, such as a public space called Superkilen in Copenhagen where refugees, residents and tourists meet. ‘Tourists and residents are essentially the same. Even as a resident, you are sometimes a tourist in your own city. Look at how you can bring those flows of visitors and residents together, and see what the impact is. Use a hyper-local approach for this, because that makes the challenge – which is complex enough due to politics and conflicting interests – more manageable.’
Urban living labs
Ko does not have a ready-made roadmap to a new kind of urban tourism. ‘There are no quick fixes. What I do know is that you have to tackle the challenges in practice together with all stakeholders. Actions speak louder than words, as we say in Rotterdam. We are already working on this through the Urban Leisure & Tourism Labs at Inholland University of Applied Sciences in Amsterdam and Rotterdam, in collaboration with local stakeholders as well as students. That way, we are all learning from each other and making the city better together. Hopefully, we will also reinvent a new form of urban tourism in the process.’
Social return on tourism
Claudio Milano is a visiting research fellow who is affiliated with Inholland and involved in Ko’s research focus area. Via a live connection with Barcelona, he stressed the importance of looking at how tourism can have a positive and negative impact on cities. ‘Take the social return on tourism into account. What can you give back to residents through tourism?’
How do you reframe urban tourism so that it can contribute to the urban development of a city like Rotterdam? Ewout Versloot from the Netherlands Board of Tourism & Conventions (NBTC) and Siobhan Burger from Arttenders discussed this with Ko. ‘An important step is not relying solely on economic KPIs,’ Ewout says. ‘What is the return on the municipality's investment? Experiment with KPIs based on other values, too.’ In collaboration with the municipality and the Eurovision Song Contest, Arttenders developed The Splash in Rotterdam-Zuid, a multifunctional meeting place for residents and visitors that strengthens the neighbourhood’s identity. ‘Ko’s research is extremely helpful in getting initiatives like this through the discussion phase.’
Cities are also in danger of becoming a commodity that people have to pay for.
Becoming a professional
‘Opening a new door, as you showed in the presentation, is a wonderful metaphor for suddenly discovering a new perspective,’ says Huug den Deugd, a member of the Executive Board. ‘That is exactly what you can do as a student at Inholland. Coaching them to become professionals is our primary goal.’ For Ko's official inauguration, Huug presented him with a statuette. ‘We wish you the best of luck and hope you enjoy your new position. I’m glad that you’ve joined us.’