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Are You Guilty of Tourism Gentrification? If You Said No, You’re Probably Wrong

Gentrification is the process of reviving a neighborhood, typically in a low-income city district.  With “gentrification” increasingly becoming a buzzword in the US, it’s worthwhile for tourists to consider how their actions may contribute to it. For better or worse. For worse or better.

A Disclaimer

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I don’t claim to have the answers to whether gentrification is good or bad, or even what a middle-of-the-road solution would be. 

But as someone who’s lived and traveled abroad for over a decade, I feel compelled to add to the gentrification conversation by approaching the topic from the perspective and impact of international travel.

Why Does Gentrification Occur?

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Gentrification occurs because of a demand for housing and businesses for middle and upper-class individuals in low-income areas.

The demand typically starts at a middle-class level, with people wanting to move to the gentrified area for a job opportunity without paying what are often exorbitant prices in higher-income districts. 

Back to Square One

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As fancy shops, modern apartments, and cafes catering to avocado toast and kombucha-consuming individuals increase, the middle class may face what the locals already had: The inability to pay for an increased cost of living. 

So, the final step of gentrification is an area becoming so expensive that only the upper class can afford to live there—unless the gentrifying government/private business’ vision goes astray. 

Pros and Cons of Gentrification

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The slides that follow cover some key advantages and disadvantages of gentrification. I’ll mostly use tourism examples. But these points likely apply to gentrified areas near where you live too.

Pro: Economic Opportunity

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Gentrification comes with huge potential economic benefits. New businesses help create jobs. An increase in middle and upper-class tourists staying in an area can equate to higher tips for workers in the hospitality industry.

Con: Infrastructure Can’t Handle It

Traffic jam.
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Although a significant part of gentrification is improving infrastructure, the reality sometimes looks different.

If a town or district suddenly gets on tourists’ radars, there will be an increase in traffic. The roads in and around that destination might not be able to handle so many vehicles, forcing locals to build in extra travel time when getting to and from work.

Pro: Improves Housing Prices for Local Homeowners

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Property values often skyrocket in gentrified tourist areas. But instead of selling their homes, many locals choose to rent a room or their entire property.

Since locals can charge higher prices for short-term stays than long-term stays, they can pocket significantly more money than before gentrification took place.

Con: Forces Local Renters Out of Their Communities

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On the opposite side of the spectrum, low-income residents are often forced out of areas that have undergone gentrification because rising rents and living expenses become too high.

Loss of affordable housing can occur in minority groups as tourists or affluent, often white people move into the neighborhood.

Pro: Cultural Exchange

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Tourists looking to connect with locals and vice versa may find that opportunity in communities that are beginning to undergo gentrification. This can increase understanding and compassion between different cultures and ways of life.

However, “beginning” is the key word. Once a district becomes heavily gentrified, the positive aspects of cultural exchange between locals and tourists often diminish.

Con: High Rental Turnovers

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Short-term rentals are common in touristy gentrified areas. But it’s not just tourists moving in and out of accommodations that causes a high turnover rate.

Instead, there are drawbacks for affluent people as well, locals and tourists alike. As a district progresses through the stages of gentrification, people who used to afford a district no longer can.

Pro: Limits Sprawling

Abandoned apartment building.
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There was an approximately 11% decrease in global tree cover loss in the 20-year period from 2001 to 2021. Gentrification can help manage deforestation by repurposing an area with vacant buildings instead of clearing land to build a new community.

Upgrading current buildings instead of building on new land also benefits gentrified areas because it helps preserve those with historical meaning or architectural character.

Con: Budget Travelers Not Spending Money

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Locals in tourist-oriented gentrified districts might not feel as great of a negative economic impact if it weren’t for window shoppers.

Tourists who book all-inclusive experiences like cruises and resorts naturally shy away from eating at local restaurants and purchasing tours from local agencies, given that they already paid for those items.

With the rise of remote workers, it’s also common for digital nomads to live in gentrified communities but avoid the expense of eating out, opting instead to buy food at supermarkets and cook from the gentrified apartment they’re renting.

Pro: Crime Rates Drop

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According to a study performed by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), the city of Cambridge saw a 16% reduction in crime after gentrification occurred. Of this amount, there was a significant decrease in violent crime. 

Naturally, word gets around in the tourism industry, and tourists are more likely to visit gentrified districts that they would have otherwise avoided in their original states due to high crime.

Con: Hotel Chains Taking Over Local Accommodation

Beach resort in Cancun, Mexico.
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For some travelers, the convenience of knowing what kinds of amenities and services to expect from a hotel chain is easier than researching local, privately owned accommodations.

So, in the process of renewal in a tourist-oriented area, private firms often seek to turn buildings into big brand hotels, like Best Western and JW Marriott, pushing out individually-owned accommodations. 

Pro: Potential to Improve the Environment

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Gentrification offers the opportunity for a district to undergo an urban planning reset. And that can be a positive thing for Mother Nature; “green gentrification” is even a phrase.

Since the middle and upper class often have the financial wiggle room to care about topics like environmental issues instead of how to pay the bills each month, that translates into many gentrified areas becoming more environmentally friendly.

Con: Overpopulated Tourist Sites

Crowded tourist area.
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Countless destinations that never used to be on the tourist map are now experiencing an overtourism problem. And in some cases, gentrification has played a role, making these sites more attractive to visitors. 

Overtourism negatively impacts the environment and stresses infrastructure. 

Pro: More Events and Activities

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An increase in middle and upper-class residents to an area often brings more family-friendly activities to do there.

That benefits the entire community, as it keeps kids out of trouble who don’t have an alternative option, potentially decreasing their chances of getting involved with illegal activities. 

Con: Changes to Local Food

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Despite traveling to other countries, many people have picky palates and expect the destination to cater to their dietary needs.

Locals often find that to stay in business, they must change the type of food they make to cater to their international customers. Some restaurants try to keep their local cuisine alive by offering lower calorie, vegan-friendly, gluten-free, etc. versions of their food. But western restaurants and those serving cuisine from other parts of the world almost always move into gentrified tourist areas.

Pro: More Local Tax for Projects

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The arrival of tourists and higher-income residents to a neighborhood typically equates to more (and more expensive) spending.

As a result, local governments often find themselves with more money in their pockets from tax revenue to fund parks, museums, and other projects that can benefit the community.

Con: May Drive Small Stores Out of Business

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Some mom-and-pop shops thrive with gentrification in tourist areas. Others collapse. Although a gentrified community often results in new job opportunities, larger brands and chains like Starbucks are often those that seek jobs, international preferences fueling the need for those positions.

Meanwhile, small businesses fade into the background, without the financial means, knowledge, or desire to serve their community’s growing foreign population.

Pro: Lifelong Friends

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Gentrification can bring together groups of people that normally wouldn’t have crossed paths. 

Friendships often have a higher chance of forming early on in the gentrification process. During the transition period, the locals may be curious about the tourists in their neighborhoods and tourists can learn about the community’s traditional culture.

Con: Loss of Community

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Many districts had a strong sense of community and culture before they became gentrified. However, because gentrification causes housing prices to continually increase, neighbors are constantly changing, making it hard to build a sense of community.

Furthermore, as small businesses become replaced by wealthy people in the private sector, a sense of community also crumbles. These larger business owners typically only become involved in community-level building activities if they see an opportunity to make a profit.

Pro: Increased Government Attention

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A boost in taxes aside, governments on the local and even national scale may take notice of communities that undergo gentrification.

That could help improve the quality of life for locals, as their government may place a greater emphasis on ensuring they’re equipped with well-maintained roads, public transportation, and schools.

Con: Forces the Poor to Bad Neighborhoods

Low-income neighborhood in the hills of Medellin.
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Even though many gentrified neighborhoods become safer, it’s often at the expense of the locals no longer being able to afford their rent. Gentrification can cause displacement or homelessness, sometimes forcing residents to move to an area that’s even more dangerous than their pre-gentrified neighborhood, as it’s the only area they can afford.

In addition to the possibility of moving to an unsafe neighborhood, the corresponding negative effects of gentrification from moving include children having to change schools and adults having a longer commute to work.

Pro: Language Learning Opportunities

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Foreign tourists and locals living in gentrified communities have the unique opportunity for language exchanges. Locals may be able to pick up on English without having to pay for expensive schooling, allowing them to pivot into a career in tourism where they might have the chance for higher pay.

Language exchanges are also an excellent way to bridge the negative feelings some locals in gentrified communities have towards tourists. That’s assuming the tourists behave respectfully and put effort into learning their language.

Con: Tensions With Locals

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Community resentment towards tourists can run high in gentrified communities. In most cases, the locals had no say in whether they wanted their district to be gentrified; it’s a gradual but well-planned change driven by wealthy business owners.

Adding fuel to the fire is that some tourists arrive at a destination ready to party and with little regard for how they treat the locals. So, some locals feel bitter towards visitors encroaching on their territory no matter the ratio of positive and negative interactions they have with them.

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This article was produced and syndicated by A Piece of Travel.

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