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The links between gentrification and tourism can be convoluted, which makes it difficult to determine whether changing demographics are a boon or hinderance to tourism. In many cases, gentrification increases the tourism draw of an area, but there’s also a dark side of gentrification that affects the cultural landscape of a city and the people whose jobs depend on tourism.
Gentrification is one part of a complex cycle of decay and renewal that most cities go through over time. The cycle begins when a run-down and poverty-stricken neighborhood starts to attract a small number of adventurous individuals, often artists and renovator types, who want to take advantage of the low housing prices and living costs while rebuilding the architecturally interesting buildings in the area.
During this first gentrification stage, most tourists- and most better-off locals- avoid the neighborhood because they are warned about crime and poverty there.
The second stage occurs when more of these pioneering renovators move in and restore more homes in the area while also opening businesses catering to the growing population with expendable income. The original inhabitants start to move out as prices rise, and the media and real estate industries start to notice the area as one that is up and coming.
At this stage, adventurous tourists begin to explore the area, seeking out-of-the-way restaurants and attractions that go beyond typical tourist traps. Locals living in the gentrifying area are often cultural pioneers as well, so they usually open art galleries, coffee shops, bars, independent theaters and other businesses that draw tourists.
As prices start to skyrocket, stage three of gentrification begins, in which developers start to buy up property and middle class individuals start to move in. Big businesses also move in and services improve to meet the demands of the new, wealthier population.
Creative shops and cafes that opened during stage two experience a boom in business, and travel guidebooks start to mention the area as having must-see attractions. However, the initial population has decreased significantly by this point, and this often leads to a loss of traditional culture that once supplied the city itself with an underlying current of cultural interest.
Many of the people driven out may also be bartenders, servers and retail employees who support the tourist industry, so finding employees may become more difficult.
Stage four occurs when the area becomes a middle-class hotspot, which attracts national chain restaurants and stores that start to drive the smaller shops and markets out of business. As the area becomes more homogenized, the colonizing pioneers and adventurous tourists look elsewhere for the next big hidden gem of the city and start to gentrify another neighborhood.
In some cases, the cycle is gradual, with newcomers moving in slowly, while in other cases, a natural disaster or sudden economic event speed up the process. New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina is one example of rapid gentrification throughout many neighborhoods of a city, while Charleston, South Carolina provides an example of a slower gentrification process.
Overall, gentrification increases the income levels and facilities of a given neighborhood, so it tends to be good for tourism in that sense. However, cities experiencing rapid gentrification should take care not to lose the desirable cultural attributes that make a neighborhood unique because this can lead tourists to seek entertainment elsewhere.
Aiming to keep gentrification levels somewhere between level 2 and 3 would help balance the pros and cons of gentrification and make a city more tourism friendly so that everyone can enjoy both the old and new things a city has to offer.