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Top-tier tourism shopping can revolutionize cities

A new breed of tourists seeks quality urban experiences, and cities around the world should want to entice these potential visitors.

These tourists will help make cities richer, more vibrant, and more diverse. This is all quite different from the effects of mass tourism, which include lower quality of life for residents and little profitability for the city. The new tourism model benefits residents and economies, extending wealth to cultural institutions, small businesses and big retailers.

Many places are already benefiting from these new urban tourists. For example, Bilbao, Spain, has transformed into a quality, sustainable tourist destination without bothersome masses of people or unbearable nighttime street celebrations. The city is achieving this not through low prices or crowded beaches, but through cultural attractions such as the Guggenheim Museum Bilbao, popular movie productions and, according to Lonely Planet, “staggering architecture, a venerable dining scene and stunning landscapes just outside the city center.” Bilbao is focused on appealing to millions of people who want new cultural, culinary, and shopping experiences.

Bilbao’s touristic makeover has become a reference point for medium-sized cities around the world, just as the makeover of Dubai has for large cities. In both cities, Asian tourists – especially those from China – are playing a crucial role. They make up the bulk of new luxury and medium-high-end international urban visitors. Of course, these cities each have different tactics to attract urban tourists, and Bilbao is using two facts to its advantage.

One, the top destination for these travelers, after Asia, is Europe; two, Spain is the second-most visited country in the world. Dubai, meanwhile, makes the most of its architectural marvels and its position as a key Middle East aviation hub.

Sometimes public administration slows down a city’s transformation into a modern urban tourism destination. In Spain, bureaucratic foot-dragging is a key reason it gets fewer requests for short-term visas compared with Greece, Finland and Poland. That said, though, not everything depends on public servants and bureaucrats. The top champions of each culture should figure prominently into the invitations to travelers. These urban tourists are attracted by shops, cuisine and other offerings, and by getting a sample of the city’s sights and sounds and tastes.

While it’s true that this new global tourist expects to find the same types of international elements that are present in most top destinations – top luxury shops, for example – he will pick a city for its ability to surprise him. This wow factor can come from anything, whether it is a museum such as the Louvre in Paris or the Uffizi Gallery in Florence, or a church like Sagrada Família in Barcelona, or perhaps electrifying urban scenes like the Village in New York or festive street scenes as with lively Grand Vía in Madrid.

It’s crucial for cities to build on what makes them part of a global scene (for example, international restaurants and luxury retailers), but also on what makes them unique. Nobody wants to travel to London to experience the same thing that she has at home in Shanghai.

The results of efforts to find this balance are clear. According to Mastercard’s Global Destination Cities Index, Dubai is the city where foreign visitors spend the most per day, thanks in part to its availability of urban shopping. We’re talking about $537 a day, more than triple what visitors spend in London or New York each day. According to a study by Bain for the Círculo Fortuny, Spain registered 9.2 billion euros in luxury goods sales in 2017, with foreign tourists accounting for 85% of those sales. Chinese visitors were responsible for a third of that number. And, not surprisingly, urban tourism played a huge part in that progress, as 80% of sales were made in Madrid and Barcelona.

There’s a lot to learn from the successful strategies used to attract quality tourism to large and medium-sized cities. There’s also much to note about how uncontrolled tourism can deeply disturb local communities. It’s time to apply this knowledge to transform and improve cities for good.

Dimas Gimeno is the former CEO of El Corte Ingles.
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