On the gentrification and touristification of Lisbon
I had heard about Lisbon Sustainable Tourism in a documentary by Fabio Petronilli called “You’ll Soon Be Here.”
The founder took time off her busy schedule to meet me at Renovar a Mouraria. An appropriate location to talk about Lisbon’s gentrification and how the city would survive the wave of mass tourism.
Behind us, children played at a kindergarten playground while waiting for their parents to pick them up. It was past 5 pm on a Monday, and while I waited for her, I witnessed a parade of parents, grandparents, and older siblings picking up kids.
A completely normal daily routine. Except we were in one of the oldest and most typical (how I hate this word now) Lisbon neighborhoods. One that dangerously tries to balance itself on the fine line separating what’s authentic from what tourists understand as such.
At the bottom of the stairs, occasional groups of tourists stopped and looked up, wondering if there’d be something to explore up there. Brief seconds later, they decided there mustn’t be and moved on.
Despite welcoming tourists, those who work in sustainable tourism don’t want Lisbon to become a giant attraction, and privacy is sacred. They’re glad that hoards of tourists don’t invade the tiny alleys of Mouraria, yet.
I thought talking to Joana would be a friendly chat on the topic, having her answer some of my questions, and a lovely post would come out of it. I was wrong, in a good way.
Talking to her was like pulling a thread. One that led to more emails, more meetings, and a long list of other tourism professionals who feel Lisbon under their skins and are willing to show tourists a different city side.
A charismatic Lisbon, full of local business owners who strive to succeed against foreign franchises or hipster-centric new businesses.
The numbers of gentrification and touristification in Lisbon
2017 marks my 20th anniversary of living in Lisbon. Maybe it’s why I feel so sentimental. I have a handful of memories of places that no longer exist or completely changed.
The first bar where I witnessed a fight in Avenida 24 de Julho? Boarded up.
The House of Horror that gave me the fright of my life at Feira Popular? Demolished. It’s now a vacant lot.
Intendente, the place in town everyone told me not to go alone at night? A popular nightlife hangout these days.
I know cities aren’t curated museums. They grow, and breathe, and go to die if no one is there to nurture them.
Lately, it seems like every other day, a news story about an old place closing pops up on my Facebook feed. Then a petition follows. Then the City Council comes to the rescue (sometimes).
Have any of those people signing the petition been there in the last month? Probably not.
Heck, there are places even I’d never heard about! It’s impossible to keep track of every cafe, shop, and restaurant that’s opening, or closing, or remodeling. I should know. That’s part of my job.
This first informal conversation with Joana opened the way to more questions.
Which companies are focusing on giving back to the community (one of the things I believe in and that became one of this blog’s pillars)?
How do you tell the difference between a tour company practicing sustainable tourism values in Lisbon when they all seem to be selling the same authentic experience over and over?
Are you being disrespectful to the locals if you choose a tour wrongly? Do you care? Should you care?
I believe some people are misinformed, or they genuinely believe they’re making the right choice. I’ve been in a couple of the so-called tourist traps myself.
No matter how hard you plan, you can’t control every detail when you’re trying to adjust to a new culture, a new language, and a new climate, a reality you’ll only experience for a few days.
A Portuguese newspaper published a comprehensive guide of the shops closing soon in the Baixa neighborhood.
Increasing rents they can no longer afford. Evictions because the landlord decided to sell the property to the highest bidder. A business model or a product that doesn’t attract new customers.
Those were the most common reasons behind every single boarded door and window you see downtown.
What businesses take their place? Cheap souvenir shops, hostels, cafés catering to tourists exclusively (where an espresso no longer costs the average €0.60/US $0.64).
I hadn’t seen Baixa this lively in 10 years, but at what cost? Are we losing character, or is it natural for every European capital to have a touristy spot? Hadn’t those new businesses been there, would locals spend time (and money) in Baixa on a weeknight? Or a Friday evening? Or a Sunday morning?
Gentrification and touristification are the dirty words that have been on the table for at least 5 years now.
In Lisbon, the average rent increased 7.6% (compared to 0.8% in the rest of the country) in 2015.
In 2015 there were 12,000 more apartments listed on Airbnb than in 2014, a 60% increase.
Every month, an estimated 200 more apartments or buildings are listed as short-term rentals in Lisbon.
In just three years, Lisbon climbed 11 spots in the list of most expensive cities in the world.
To be clear, we don’t blame any of this on tourists. When in 2011 tourism started to grow, Portugal was going through a severe economic crisis.
The unemployment rate kept rising, and people emigrated to where they could find work.
Listing their house on short-term rental sites was a way to secure their property and have a side income to keep up with the mortgage payments.
The people in Lisbon are hospitable, and they welcome tourists with open arms. Ask anyone, and they’ll be very clear about it: Lisboans do not blame tourists, for now. But things can escalate quickly.
What needs to be dealt with urgently is the need for balance between residents and tourists.
In 2015, Lisbon was ranked the 145th most expensive city for expats. In 2016, it was ranked 134th. If it’s becoming expensive in the eyes of expats, can you imagine how unaffordable it is for locals?