On cultural tourism, heritage, and racism in Portugal

These are some of the areas in Lisbon with a connection to the slave trade. None of them are officially marked.

The three things on this post’s title might not seem like they belong together but they do.

When I set out to make this website a blog on sustainable cultural tourism, I also had to define what was exactly sustainable cultural tourism. The European Union has its own definition, heavily linked to what they consider heritage (mostly, the brick and mortar kinds like museums, monuments, and landmarks).

My idea of sustainable cultural tourism goes in a different direction:

  • It’s about addressing ALL cultural aspects of a destination and how the WHOLE history – good, bad, and ugly – of a country or a city influenced and influences that local culture (which, unlike some people believe, it’s subject to change).
  • It’s about lending my platform to cultural events and local artists who might not be appealing to mass media (I’m much more interested in their stories, their creative processes, and how they view their hometown which is my travel destination).
  • It’s about acknowledging a “tourism destination” as someone’s home and keeping my impact in that home in check. How I write about a destination comes as a service to locals first and to visitors last (do call me out when I don’t do that).

The number one pillar needs closer attention, from me and from others working in the tourism industry. Yes, anti-racism protests across the globe in June 2020 reminded me (us) of that, and I had a choice to make. Either I continued to be silent or I began my work in addressing the issue.

We have to paint the whole picture, we can’t continue to just focus on the highlights (read, the “good” things) of a destination, especially when that destination is our hometown or our home country.

We also have to revisit our notions of heritage and challenge them if we have to. More public debates, like the one in 2018 around the founding of a Museum of “Discoveries” in Lisbon, are necessary. And having just one memorial or monument dedicated to slavery or that “other” side of that historical period is disproportionate.

Note: The COVID-19 pandemic has postponed the construction of the slavery memorial in Lisbon, “Plantation – Prosperity and Nightmare” by Angolan artist Kiluanji Kia Henda.

Painting the whole picture on cultural and historical tours in Portugal

As a freelance travel writer, I’ve been in a considerable number of guided tours in Lisbon – so-called historical or cultural or both. The majority of them fails to paint the whole picture, especially when addressing the period the Portuguese have dubbed as the “Age of Discoveries”.

Before the naysayers say we can’t rewrite history, yes it’s true, we can’t. But it’s our duty as Portuguese (and I can only speak of the Portuguese case because it’s the closest to me) to at the very least provide context, talk about the great and the not so great, paint the whole picture. And when you can’t, refer other tours in Lisbon that focus on a specific topic.

Tour guides can’t continue to brush off answering tough questions about Portugal’s colonial past. In fact, they should be prepared to answer those questions or to bring up those topics themselves. Not all tourists are top-attractions-seeking zombies. I’ve experienced (as I wrote about it here) a fellow tour-goer finally piecing together loose parts of Portuguese history because the group was small and we had time to “drift”. Had the tour group been bigger than three people, and I don’t think he would have had that opportunity simply because the guide was more interested in following her script and her route than answering “off-topic” questions.

I suggest you dig a little deeper into Portugal’s past before your trip. Here’s a list of books in English on Portuguese History:

Statue of Marquês de Sá da Bandeira, defender of the abolition of slavery in Portugal. For the proper historical context of this statue and what it represents, I strongly suggest you take the African Lisbon Tour.

Racism in Portugal exists

In June of 2020 I’ve heard (and watched) some public figures vehemently stating there was no such thing as systemic racism in Portugal. Maybe one incident here or there, but racism? Never! They also seemed to think that anti-racism protests were a case of political correctness, not actually sincere (or necessary) movements.

Time for a full disclosure here: a few years ago, I too would say that racism in Portugal was practically non-existent, maybe a case here and there, but I (a white woman…) had never seen it.

Well of course I had never seen it. It never affected me, a white woman. I might be discriminated for other things, but not because the color of my skin.

When people ask me “are you Portuguese” it’s because of my red hair and blue eyes (which contrasts with the “typical” Portuguese look), and it’s endearing. But when people ask the same to my black friends, what they’re really asking is “which former Portuguese colony did you come from.”

The Portuguese have difficulty in accepting that there is racism in Portugal in the same way we have difficulty in talking openly and objectively about colonialism. It’s like an open wound. However, that doesn’t excuse us from pretending it doesn’t exist.

And if you think the topic of racism is too “political” and not about cultural tourism at all, I’m afraid you’re reading the wrong blog.

The topic of racism in Portugal is far more complex than I can address in one blog post. You can, however, educate yourself through one of the resources listed on this website (resources are in Portuguese, but you can always count on Google translator if you’re not fluent in Portuguese).

Below, some recent articles in English about racism in Portugal:

A final note: ditching the colonial mentality when traveling

When I visited Diu in 2014, I was (unconsciously) very interested in finding the remains of Portuguese heritage and was shocked to find most of them were in poor condition:

“I’m all for preserving history, even if it doesn’t always bring you the best of memories. All cultures have a background and a story to tell, so the respect and conservation of their heritage should be top of mind for everyone. The care is the very first thing I see, and in Diu, the fort (and the nearby churches) were in bad condition.”

I meant well then and I still do now. I genuinely don’t like to see poorly preserved historical buildings and landmarks.

That said, those remarks are very short-sighted (to say the least). So what if a former colony doesn’t care about the “heritage” left behind by colonizers?

You see, when Portuguese travel to former colonies or places with a Portuguese “presence”, we are programmed to go find those signs we read about in our history books.

I’m not saying don’t do it, but see the local culture and history as a whole. Read the history books of your destination before you go. And if you’re a travel writer or a travel blogger, please remember you have the responsibility to give context and paint the whole picture for your audience.

“The past is the past. Though it pains me, I can’t change it. But how we react to this is what’s important. Either we deny all of this and dig into trenches of the myths. Or we accept that there’s room for improving ourselves and how we view those destroyed by colonization and move on together. The former is easy. It’s what we’ve been doing for 500 years. The latter is hard because it means admitting that a group of colonizers perpetrated the greatest mortality and cultural destruction in modern history — an event that’s still being celebrated as a good thing.”

Decolonizing The Way We Talk About Travel“, Zack Johnston
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