Town versus Gown versus Tourists

Katharine Siân looks at the three clashing groups that make up Oxford

Photo: Footprints Tours

Oxford is a city in constant flux. The Office of National Statistics estimated the population at 163,300 in mid 2016. Within that, it counted a massive 32,000 full time students across the Universities in 2014.  Yet these numbers are outflanked by the incredible number of tourists, who flood the city throughout the year and numbered nearly 7 million people in 2014. From these numbers alone it is easy to see how, for students and residents alike, it can feel like we’re living in a theme park.

I was born in Oxford in 1994, and while I moved to Cardiff not long after, my father remained in Woodstock until the millennium. He knew Oxford as a social worker and as a resident, and I have fond memories of trips to the old HMV on Cornmarket Street, where I bought my first CD, and seeing the dinosaur at Pitt Rivers. Ironically, the Oxford HMV has now been converted into a LEON and a souvenir shop. I was too young to be conscious of the divide between the student community and the local community, then, and never noticed the impact of the tourist industry on local life. However, I now realise that the last three decades have been a time of extreme change in Oxford. The closure of the Rover factory in Cowley saw a huge loss of employment, and the closure of the Radcliffe Infirmary contributed to the gentrification of Jericho. I was amazed when my dad reminded me that, not so long ago, Cornmarket Street was packed with busses.

After my second term here, I stayed in Oxford for a college telethon. I was unsurprised to see the shift in college population, but more surprised to see how quiet the city became out-of-season. I cycled into town and discovered ample space to lock up my bike, and avoided queueing when I visited my favourite cafe. I loved the opportunity to get to know the city and to make it my home. I expected the same to be the case in the summer, when I stayed in college cleaning B&B rooms, but realised it felt even busier. The key difference seemed to be that while students spend much of their time inside studying, tourists are constantly on the move, often walking en masse in tour groups which block up roads and pedestrian walkways in the city.

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The year I suspended my studies and remained in Oxford to earn a living gave me an interesting insight into the relationship between the various communities in Oxford. The restaurant I worked in was a key example of a local business which relied heavily on the student body in order to turn a profit. During the Michaelmas break, we were incredibly quiet, rarely reaching full capacity, and relied upon private bookings and Christmas parties to break even. However, those summer months were a time when we saw an increase in the number of locals coming into the restaurant and Oxford itself. The quieter season made space for them to reclaim the city. My colleagues and I started going to the city on days out more often. I had the distinct feeling that this calmer Oxford was the city summer tourists were trying, and failing, to glimpse.

I recently read Angela Giuffrida’s article about the impact of mass tourism upon the city of Venice. She considers the ever falling local population of Venice and its relationship to the huge traffic of tourists arriving into this ancient city each day. This comes at a time when protesters in Barcelona have compared tourism to terrorism, and CUP MP Mireia Boya described the effect of tourism in the city as “pure economic violence.” Many of the effects of tourism seen abroad can also be seen in Oxford. While there are yet to be any formal discussions of possible control measures, such as those being implemented in Florence where the number of people in certain areas  limited, it is easy to see how this might become necessary. However, as Fearghus O’Sullivan of City Lab has suggested, despite the fact that “even tourists hate tourists,” such measures have some problematic implications. They damage civil liberties and, most controversially, put the lives and rights of the homeless and sex workers at risk.

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We are left with a difficult issue to resolve. How can Oxford adapt to the needs of residents, students and tourists? The local economy needs tourism to survive, but the industry makes the city costly and difficult for residents and students. What measures could be introduced to protect the rights of locals to live, of students to study and of visitors to see this historical city? These are questions which will only be resolved through a process of trial and error, and are ones which still remain a vast and challenging issue.