Lisbon Tourist Invasion Seen Threatening Ancient City’s Identity

The MSC Opera cruise ship was among the first to arrive in Lisbon on Sept. 12. Other vessels, some the size of buildings, soon pulled into the River Tagus, lazily making their way to the heart of the Portuguese capital.

In all, a record seven vessels carrying 15,000 people arrived in the city that day, the Port of Lisbon estimates. As the ships docked alongside the river, tuk-tuk-style taxis lined up in a scene reminiscent of a town in Thailand -- rather than one of Europe’s oldest cities.

“It’s going to be a day to remember,” said Jose Amaral, a 33-year-old tuk-tuk driver who charges about 50 euros ($63) for a one-hour ride. “Forget the tram 28, this is the new way to see Lisbon,” he said, referring to the famous yellow tram that takes tourists to some of Lisbon’s historic hill-top sites.

The more than 1 million euros the tourists spent in less than 24 hours on that day helped Portugal’s economy, and the government heralded the flood of tourists as a sign that Lisbon is the place to be. For some residents, however, such flows risk ousting local inhabitants and traditional stores from the city’s ancient quarters as hostels and shops selling cheap trinkets and imitation handicrafts encroach -- threatening the very identity of a city that traces its history back to more than 2,000 years.

The changes are most evident in the downtown Baixa area, a grid of black and white cobblestone streets between two hills facing the River Tagus. An area once dominated by local boutiques has faced an influx of low-budget hotels, restaurants with menus in multiple languages and souvenir shops hawking cheap Portuguese-style products made in China.

‘Moving Out’

“While the new hotels have helped revamp some of the city’s decrepit buildings, an increasing number of residents in the Baixa are moving out because of the noise from the restaurants and the garbage,” said Antonio Rosado, head of the Association of Residents of the Baixa Pombalina area. “Some residents are unhappy because of the problems caused by the excess of businesses catering to tourists.”

Many of these tourists look to spend as little as possible, said Maria Goncalves, a shop clerk in Lisbon.

“What happens when everything around you turns into shops selling cheap souvenirs?” asked the 62-year-old who has worked at the Londres Salao fine fabrics shop in downtown Lisbon for more than four decades. “Tourists who come to Lisbon will no longer be able to see the best that we have to offer.”

A total of 1.51 million foreigners spent the night in Lisbon in the first six months of the year, up 14 percent from the same period a year earlier, according to the Lisbon Tourism Observatory. That’s almost three times the 547,733 residents in the Lisbon city center, according to data compiled by the National Statistics Institute.

‘Quick Profit’

“I have nothing against tourists,” said Luis Paisana, head of the Association of Residents of Bairro Alto, one of Lisbon’s oldest hill-top quarters. “The problem is that the flood of tourists is attracting several businesses that just want to make a quick profit by selling cheap beer or souvenirs that are made in China.”

The Artisans’ Association of the Lisbon Region is also concerned that the proliferation of souvenir shops in the city center selling cheap imitations of local handicrafts such as the Portuguese Rooster, an icon of the country, will hurt the business of its 150 members.

“There is a boom of souvenir shops in the center of Lisbon selling cheap imitations of handicraft products from Portugal,” said Jose Almendra, general secretary of the association. “Many tourists just pick the cheapest souvenirs.”

Visitors to Lisbon used to take a taxi, walk or hop on a tram to get to some of the capital’s monuments. Today, the city boasts a duck tour, go-cars, tuk-tuks and a bike-bar that lets them drink beer as they pedal their way along the River Tagus.

No Vasco

Oleg Pugachev, a member of the Russian Academy of Sciences who arrived in Lisbon on the MSC Opera cruise ship on Sept. 12, said he was surprised to find tuk-tuk taxis in a city more often associated with trams, the melancholic sound of fado -- the heartrending style of the country’s singers -- or centuries-old monuments related to Portugal’s glorious seafaring history.

“I expected to see a statue of Vasco da Gama,” said Pugachev, referring to the Portuguese explorer who became the first European to reach India by sea in the 15th century. “This is weird.”

Low-cost travellers are finding it increasingly easier to get to Lisbon, Continental Europe’s western-most capital city. Ryanair Holdings Plc, Europe’s largest discount airline, and EasyJet Plc both have hubs in Lisbon. Lonely Planet travel guides rated the southern European city as one of its most reasonably priced destinations last year.

The tourism sector accounts for almost 10 percent of Portugal’s gross domestic product, according to Adolfo Mesquita Nunes, the secretary of state for tourism.

Bye Bye Lisbon?

“Tourism has contributed to urban revitalization, the recovery of old buildings and to bolstering the country’s economy,” Mesquita Nunes said in an interview on Sept. 12. “Tourists aren’t forced to go around on tuk-tuks. If they ride them it’s because they like it.”

Some of Lisbon’s residents, including Rosado from the Association of Residents of the Baixa Pombalina area, say the authorities should do more to control businesses that cater to tourists so that they don’t interfere with the life of the city’s residents.

Such calls aren’t unique to Lisbon.

In Barcelona, one of the world’s biggest cruise ship ports, residents of the seaside neighborhood of La Barceloneta took to the streets in August to protest against the negative impact mass tourism is having on their town after pictures of naked tourists appeared in local newspapers.

“Some parts of the city are losing their identity after being converted into places just for tourists to enjoy,” Eduardo Chibas, a filmmaker who captured this phenomena in a documentary published on Youtube earlier this year entitled Bye Bye Barcelona, said in an interview on Sept. 9. “This is a problem that can happen in any city that gets invaded by low-cost tourists, including Lisbon.”

Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.
LEARN MORE