Looking back at the summer in Lisbon and its usual flow of tourists, E&M‘s Jessica Verheij highlights the hidden costs of the tourism industry in European cities. 

With summer in Europe coming to an end, so is its holiday season. As you are reading this, you probably went on holidays too – and, wherever you went, it is very likely that you were a tourist at some point. As much as we hate the word, we all go on holidays to more or less unknown places and, hence, become tourists. Nowadays many people tend to describe themselves as ‘travellers’ rather than ‘tourists’ in order to avoid being put in the same box as the millions of people wandering through the world’s historic city centres, ancient monuments, cultural highlights, and beautiful beaches, armed with selfie-sticks or world-class cameras. However, even if we like to see ourselves as explorers and adventurers, everyone else is also ‘going off-the-beaten-track’ and we all just end up being… …tourists.

But why has tourism become such a dirty word? When did tourists become ‘annoying’ instead of ‘curious’? What is actually wrong with tourism?

Tourism boosts local economies

Europe is a major tourism destination. According to data from the UN World Tourism Organization, France and Spain are the two top destinations in the world. Combined, these two countries receive up to 160 million visitors per year. Many other destinations in Europe are popular among both Europeans and non-Europeans, from cities to villages and from sunny beaches to spectacular mountain ranges.

Tourism has been and continues to be promoted by many national, regional, and city governments, as a means to push the local economy forward. Tourists bring (foreign) money to spend on accommodation, restaurants, activities, and souvenirs. Tourists also bring along investments, as places become attractive for real-estate investors, hotel chains, and the like. With all this money flowing in, cultural heritage starts to be renovated or cared for, public spaces are upgraded and local governments start to invest in public toilets, clean beaches or visitor tracks. Thanks to tourism, a whole city or region can get a facelift in a matter of years – and this is exactly what happened to Lisbon.

Less than ten years ago, Portugal was known for its difficult economic and financial situation. Yet, today it is described by many as having ‘recovered’ from its dark days of austerity and financial instability. The city of Lisbon – the country’s capital and main urban region – was able to ride this wave of revival, and has now become a popular destination for start-ups, expats, international students and… tourists.

Tourists on the sidewalk | Photo: Pedro Ribeiro Simões (Flickr); Licence: CC BY 2.0

It is even likely that you recently went on a city trip to Lisbon yourself – or that you considered doing so. That’s great, and I am usually the first one to encourage people to visit this beautiful city. Due to a growing tourism sector, both the national and the city governments have invested in renovating cultural heritage, museums, public space, and transport infrastructure. Meanwhile, shops, restaurants and hotels have seen their profits rise. Nonetheless, with a greater-than-ever influx of visitors all year round, the dark side of mass-tourism is becoming more and more visible for the city’s residents.

The dark side of mass tourism

Although many tourists come to spend money, they also bring along a lot of costs. First of all, and most significantly, city tourism is known to have a massive impact on the local housing market: As more buildings in the city centre are transformed into hotels or rented out through platforms like AirBnB, less housing remains available for local residents. This means prices are going up and many people can no longer afford to live in the city. People thus feel they are being expelled from their own city for the sake of tourists, which naturally leads to feelings of resentment and injustice.

Many people feel they are being expelled from their own city for the sake of tourists.

The replacement of residents by tourists tends to have an overall impact on the neighbourhood: Local supermarkets become souvenir shops, the local café starts to cater for tourists, prices go up and public spaces are used by tourists to rest, take photos or eat ice-cream. During night time tourists are often much more active than local residents: In Lisbon, it is common for people to stay out on the streets until early morning resulting in high levels of nuisance.

After a night out in Lisbon | Photo: Pedro Ribeiro Simões; Licence: CC BY 2.0

For the residents that managed not to get evicted, the neighbourhood becomes an increasingly less attractive place to live.

Because cities are mostly not planned for the spike in short-term visitors during holiday season, a number of additional costs come along: saturation of the public transport system and other infrastructures, increased air and noise pollution, and too much garbage for the garbage collectors to cope with. Visitors tend to produce much more waste than residents. During summer, cities experiencing a sudden increase of visitors are often not prepared to manage the additional amount of waste created. Coping and ensuring the well-functioning of the city for everyone requires many additional resources.

Tourism Leakage

But tourists bring in money, right? Well, not for everyone.

Today most cities charge some kind of tourism fee to cover the additional costs of tourism: in Lisbon this fee is €2 per night. However, most of the money spent by tourists tend to be aggregated by a few private players. This is called tourism leakage – meaning the leaking of the money you spend on your holidays towards multinational companies. This may be through your accommodation which is owned by a foreign investor, the international restaurant chain where you have dinner, the international company that organises tours in your destination of choice, or the souvenirs you bought which are actually far from local.

Although many jobs are created, these jobs are mainly low-paid and do only capture a fracture of the value generated by a growing tourism sector. More importantly, as the profits are accumulated by a few, the costs of tourism — like a broken housing market or a massive increase in garbage — are supported by all. Fixing these issues requires public money, meaning everyone pays the price of tourism.

The inherent fault in tourism is quite simple: the tourism sector generates private gains out of what is mostly public.

As some become richer, others are left only with the troubles. The inherent fault in tourism is quite simple: the tourism sector generates private gains out of what is mostly public. Cultural heritage, well-conserved historic monuments, a beautiful inner city, clean beaches, amazing landscapes… Lisbon indeed got a facelift over the last years, but we should not forget that some people are paying the price. As long as the money generated by tourism is not well-distributed, it only leads to increased inequality and injustice. Local residents lose their own city to a booming industry.

Tourismophobia v. our city breaks

It is therefore not surprising that ‘tourismophobia’ has become a big issue in many of Europe’s major cities. Residents are fed up with t their every-day living environment becoming a playground for an ever-growing number of tourists to spend their holidays. Honestly, you can hardly blame them. Last year, a number of social movements from southern-European cities wrote a manifesto, requesting governments to limit the growth of the tourism industry in their cities.

Yet, we do love our holidays and city breaks – and most of us are part of the problem. So what to do? Simply said, tourism cannot grow forever. If local or national governments do not set a limit, tourist destinations will become increasingly saturated, making life difficult both for locals and for visitors. This is already happening in cities like Barcelona and Veneza, and it is time to tackle the issue once and for all.

In the end, tourism is an industry like all others: There are costs and benefits, and the trick is to balance both. As the tourism sector makes private gains out of what is mostly public, it is only rational to demand the industry contributes its fair share to solving the numerous issues that come along. Hotels, AirBnB, tourist-oriented restaurants and souvenir shops may think they are doing the city a favour, but only if they take responsibility for the impact of their businesses.

You cannot stop being a tourist, but you can definitely be a positive contribution.

And think about this next time you plan your holiday: You cannot stop being a tourist, but you can definitely do as much as possible to make a positive contribution to solving a problem that needs urgent fixing at the European level. First step? Avoid AirBnB and the like, and make sure you spend your money locally!


Cover photo: Courtesy of Victoria Jordan

  • retro

    Jessica Verheij is originally from the Netherlands but has spent a major part of her life in Portugal. After having spent six months in Ghana, she lived in Amsterdam, Berlin and Stockholm, although always returning to her favorite city Lisbon. She currently lives in Bern, Switzerland, where she is working on her PhD on urban and spatial planning in relation to sustainable development.

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