On the Gentrification of Lisbon

I had heard about Lisbon Sustainable Tourism on a documentary by Fabio Petronilli called “You’ll Soon Be Here” and Joana took time off her busy schedule to meet me at Renovar a Mouraria, a timely location to talk about the gentrification of Lisbon and how the city would survive the wave of mass tourism.

Behind us, children were playing at a kindergarten playground while waiting for their parents to pick them up. It was past 5 pm on a Monday and while waiting for her, I had witnessed a parade of fathers, grandmothers and older sisters 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…) neighborhoods of Lisbon, one that dangerously tries to balance itself out on the fine line separating what’s authentic from what foreign visitors perceive as authentic.

At the bottom of the stairs, occasional groups of tourists stopped and looked up, wondering if there would be something to explore up there. Brief seconds later, they decided there mustn’t be and moved on.

Despite welcoming foreigners and tourists, those who, like Joana, 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.

Ok, can we start a serious discussion about this? Are we losing the Mouraria neighborhood to the short term rental crowd? ?

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I thought to talk to Joana was like having a nice chat on the topic, having her answer some of my questions, and a lovely post would come out of it. I was wrong, in the most wonderful way possible.

Talking to her was like pulling an endless thread. One that led to more emails, will lead to more meetings, and a long list of other tourism professionals who feel Lisbon (THE Lisbon) under their skins and who are willing to show tourists a different side of the city. One full of charismatic persons, of local business owners who strive to keep their heads above water in their struggle against foreign franchises or hipster-centric new businesses.

On the Gentrification of Lisbon, By the Numbers

2017 marks my 20th anniversary of living in Lisbon, maybe it’s why I feel so nostalgic. I have a handful of memories of places that no longer exist or that have 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’m not naive. I know cities aren’t carefully 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 new 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 had 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 the pillars of this blog)? How do you tell the difference between a tour company practicing the values of sustainable tourism 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 do believe some of the 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 single detail when you’re trying to adjust to a new culture, a new language, a new climate; a reality you’ll only experience for a few days.

One year ago, a Portuguese newspaper published a comprehensive guide of the shops that were closing soon in the Baixa quarter of Lisbon. 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 – these 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 tourist-y 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 is the dirty word that’s been on the table for, at least, 5 years now.

The average rent, in Lisbon, has 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, there is an estimated 200 more apartments or buildings listed as local accommodations in Lisbon.

In just three years, Lisbon climbed 11 spots on the list of most expensive cities in the world.

Active Airbnb rentals in Lisbon, Lisboa (March 2017). Source: www.airdna.co

To be clear, we don’t blame the gentrification of Lisbon on tourists. When in 2011 tourism began to increase, 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 while having a side income (that allowed them 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: Lisbonners do not blame tourists, for now. But things can escalate quickly.

What needs to be dealt with, urgently, is the need of balance between residents and tourists.

In 2015, Lisbon was ranked the 145th most expensive city for expats. In 2016, it was ranked the 134th. If it’s becoming expensive in the eyes of expats, can you imagine how unaffordable it is for locals?

Lisbon’s best feature: hidden alleys.

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What are your thoughts on the gentrification of Lisbon?

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