It’s the simple things about Lisbon that makes me love this city so much. The sights, sounds, smells… all the small details that you experience sitting in a praça (public square), watching the world go by. The cobblestones you walk across while you’re headed to grab a coffee at some hole-in-the-wall place, where locals gather to chat and gossip about the days events. Lisbon is authentic. It’s real. This is why I keep coming back. This is why Susete and I made the decision to be here now, more long term.
As we were walking across the city the other day, taking in the aforementioned sights, sounds, and smells we love to much, we looked at each other, realizing we came to the same conclusion…. It’s changed. There’s noticeably many more tourists here than there were before…. and it’s only early spring… way outside of normal tourist season. Whenever anyone would ask us about Portugal before, the first thing we’d tell them is that Lisbon has the charm and history that people love about other European capitals, but without all the crazy tourist shit. Well, I now fear that may not be for much longer.
Here’s the thing about tourism – it’s a double-edged sword. Portugal has a long-standing history of having a bad economy, and was one of the EU countries to take austerity measures, but it’s since fared much better than say, Spain or Greece. Portugal’s the only country to be well on it’s way to fully repaying their loan. It’s making some serious waves in multiple industries, such as environmental tech, and is ahead of the pack in the increase in the tourism industry. A couple years ago, people would ask me why I’m going to Portugal… now I find, everyone I know seems to be telling me they’re going to Portugal. It’s one of the new hotspots. It’s the cool kid on many 2016/2017 travel lists. In one respect, this is great! I’ve been a big advocate for Portugal’s wonders over the past couple years. I’ve been promoting the country, the history, the culture, the food, the landscape…. and it seems to be working. That’s wonderful. I love this country and all it has to offer, and the increase in tourism is a quick way to help Portugal build the strong economy that it’s needed for so long. Since 2012, tourism has been increasing every year by about 8-10%. This has translated into billions of Euros in added income for hotels and businesses…. and many of these figures are based off of hotel occupancy stats…. they don’t even include all the private accommodations such as AirBnB, which has really started to takeover.
So, more tourism means more money. Yep. Score one for the positive side. Now here’s the other side of the coin. With all this increased tourism also comes a massive increase in the negative aspects that inevitably come along with it. The people… so many people. A couple years ago, you’d see maybe 1 cruise ship come into Lisbon’s port each day. Now, you may have days where 7-9 ships arrive. That’s THOUSANDS more people running around the city with selfie-sticks, and flooding the streets (which are already narrow and tight)! Portugal is somewhat infamous for having decriminalized drugs, while also seeing a decrease in drug use. Now though, I’ve noticed a substantial increase in drug dealers around Lisbon. A couple years ago, there may be a couple guys in only a one or two small (very touristy) areas of the city asking if you want hashish. Now, the hashish guys seem to have multiplied like rabbits, and have taken to approaching you in many more areas than before. I used to get really angry at this. I’ve even given total shit to a couple of these guys for bugging me, but now I’ve just learned to play with them and confuse the hell out of them. I like to ask them if they have any Ricola… it’s less confrontational.
A friend of mine who owns a business here in Lisbon, that caters, and relies on tourist activity has given me a lot of insight on how the tourist industry has been changing over the past few years. On one hand it’s been great because more people means more money – simple math. On the other hand though, it’s also made life harder for locals in some respects. There’s now over 6000 AirBnB rental spaces in Lisbon alone. What’s happening now, is that many people see how easy it is to make money off rentals, so many apartments in the city are being reserved for this purpose, and rental/real estate prices are going up significantly, pricing out locals, making it harder for them to be able to find places to live. I know my Toronto people can relate to this feeling! Related to this, the tourism market has inflated a lot of the prices of various restaurants, shops, food, etc… making everyday living more expensive for locals. My friend, Luis told me that the public market I love so much (Mercado da Ribeira), now has a lot higher prices than they use to, because it’s become such a popular place for tourists to visit. When we were at the mercado recently, I asked one of the vendors which food places in the market he liked best. He told me that Portuguese rarely eat there because they can’t afford it. You have to go to the outskirts now, to get the kind of prices you would’ve found a couple years back. Forget prices, the products are starting to change too. So many people are realizing that many tourists just want the cheapest souvenir they can find, so now there’s MANY more of the cheap shit stores with completely useless products that say “PORTUGAL” on them, along with “traditional” Portuguese products that are really now just cheap knockoffs made in China.
It’s sad, really. Seeing this change hurts my heart a little. Don’t get me wrong, I’m actually very torn about it. I LOVE that Portugal is starting to get the attention it deserves. This is a country of absolutely wonderful people and it has so many wonders to see, and learn about. The food is amazing. The history and architecture are so intriguing, and the scenery can completely take your breathe away. These are people that have struggled for along time, and have shown true grit, always fighting to make their way… and it’s finally paying off. The only thing is, one of the main things that’s helping Portugal get its legs back, is also starting to ruin it. It’s much louder than it used to be. So many tourists don’t give care if they leave garbage lying around, because it’s not their home. They don’t care how much noise they make in the middle of the night, because they don’t have to get up for work in the morning. They don’t care if they alleyway they piss in while they’re drunk smells like a urinal for the next week, because they don’t have to pass that spot every single day.
I know how it sounds. I sound like I hate tourism, while really, I’m a tourist as well. I don’t hate tourism. I actually love it. I just hate what it’s become. There’s a certain aspect of tourism that turns every place it lands into a fake theme park-like environment. It adds more crime, it adds more mess, and changes the smells of the city. Before, you’d smell orange blossoms, charcoal grills, and the fresh ocean wherever you’d go. Now, you’re pretty much gonna smell piss, booze, and vomit way more than you’d like.
Ok, let me this back a little bit so you don’t get the wrong impression.
Portugal has not become the hell hole that I’ve made it sound like in these past paragraphs. The apocalypse hasn’t turned Lisbon to rubble as it did in 1755. Lisbon is still absolutely beautiful. I can still smell the orange trees as I’m walking down the street. I can still smell the grills from nearby restaurants. I can still hear the clanging bell of the iconic trams. The views around the city are still as spectacular as ever. It’s just… a little more crowded, and not quite how it was before.
I think the lesson is that travel is a truly wonderful part of life, but we just have to all remember to be responsible tourists. We have to visit places, supporting the local culture, not trying to change it to be more like what we have at home. We have to support local business, we have to embrace and encourage traditional artisans and producers. We have to care about leaving a place that we visit as clean as it was when we arrived, as if it was our own house. As tourists, we have to insist that a country doesn’t change to suit us, but that we change to suit that country. Luckily, Portugal hasn’t completely fallen to the tourist zombie hoards yet… it’s still holding on to it’s identity in many ways, and I optimistically think that there are certain charms that will never disappear from this amazing place.