A postcard from Portugal, where the locals are reclaiming their tourist sights

The first time I visited Lisbon was only a year and a half ago. Choosing to go in early 2019, I’d hoped to skip the notorious crowds of tourists that plagued the city. Alas! While we loved the city, uncrowded it was not – as we made our way to Belém Tower one evening for sunset, my heart sank as the 16th century structure hove into view, surrounded by camera-wielding figures and engulfed in the hum of chatter.

“Should we take a picture?” my partner, Alex, tentatively broached. The snaps we took are still on my phone, littered with the faces of strangers who wandered into shot. 

This year, in spite of the pandemic, I found myself returning to Portugal’s capital, to work remotely. Despite the FCDO advice against it, I’m glad I did. Along with Amsterdam, Venice and Barcelona, Lisbon has frequently made headlines these past years as a site of extreme overtourism, but these stories felt like a distant memory as I traversed the streets of the city this month. 

In London, the city I’d left, mounting cases and fears of the ‘second wave’ meant the slight return to normality over the summer was fading fast. Restaurants felt empty and the streets in central were clear, as people eschewed Soho and the City for more local haunts. In contrast, Lisbon retained the spirit I fell in love with on my first visit. 

Though noticeably less crowded, the city was no ghost town. Restaurants, sights and shops were instead filled with relaxed locals – both Portuguese and the many people who have chosen to make the city their permanent home. Clear skies and temperatures in the twenties meant diners and drinkers took full advantage of the streets, with tables spilling out of restaurants and surrounding the city’s kiosk cafés, the better to allow socially-distanced groups to bask under the sun.

Despite this, getting dinner reservations was a breeze – even at A Cevicheria, one of Principe Real’s most popular restaurants, it was an easy 15 minute (or one-port-and-tonic’s time at the outside bar) wait for a table. Pre-Covid, its Tripadvisor page was filled with as many dire warnings about hour-long wait times as it was five star reviews. 

Lisbon’s beautiful streets are calmer, but far from lifeless


“Tourism has changed dramatically over the past few years,” said Felipe Teixeira, the manager of the co-living and working site, Outsite (outsite.co), I stayed at in Lisbon, as we chatted outside one afternoon.

Filled with the open friendliness that seems to come so easily to the Portuguese, he earnestly told me he was a tourist himself: “that’s why I love to talk on this subject.”

“Tourism used to be an opportunity to interact, to know, to feel and to appreciate the country you’re visiting. And I still see it as something with so much value. It can bring us closer to each other and challenge preconceived mindsets about a culture. But that’s only if it has time and space it needs.” 

“Unfortunately, that hasn’t been happening in Lisbon, where tourism has been having a negative impact on the local people.”

Outside Lisbon, everyone seemed to be commenting on the refreshing change in the country. As my partner and I sped along in an Uber to the resort town of Sintra, one of Portugal’s most famous – and busiest – tourist sights, our driver commented how lucky we were: “Normally, there’d be back to back cars queuing to get up to the palacio. You wouldn’t believe what it looked like here last year.” 

Pena Palace, Sintra


Of course, there were still tourists, just in far fewer numbers. We heard German, English and Spanish being spoken as we queued to see the Initiation Well in Quinta da Regaleira. And domestic tourists seemed to far outnumber the international, with young local families and loved-up couples happily clambering over the ramparts of the Palácio Nacional da Pena, Sintra’s most iconic sight. 

This reclamation of the country’s tourist sights has been long overdue. “We see our historical buildings being bought by entrepreneurs to create another hostel, restaurant, or spa, and that’s so disheartening,” said Teixeira.

“In Lisbon, the speed at which this was happening was tremendous, and the worst thing was it left the locals (whose minimum wage is about €600) with no other choice but to leave the city center, as rents skyrocketed. The locals find this deeply unfair.”

“Our welcome began to fade, not just because of the economics, but because we saw tourists who weren’t taking the time and space to truly enjoy our culture. Instead, everything was ‘walk, eat, take pictures and leave’.”

As we spoke, I couldn’t help but feel a twinge of guilt, knowing I’d been guilty of just such ‘long weekend’ behavior. 

Sunset at Belém Tower


That’s not to say that tourists aren’t welcome in Portugal. For me, the opposite was true, where despite being an obvious outsider, I was met with friendly smiles and easy conversation wherever I went. Maybe this was because I was a rarer sight, or because, working remotely, I had more time to take the country slowly.

“We do love our tourists,” explained Teixeira, “not only because it brings in about 20 per cent of the country’s income, but also because it is a chance to show the world that despite being small, we have many wonders to unveil.”

Now that Lisbon, and Portugal, is experiencing a tourist reset, the question will be what happens once global travel starts up again. Lisbon is already on the case, reclaiming the apartment rentals aimed at tourists that have left locals with no place in the city centre, and pushing them back into the long-term market.

The city government has become a landlord, renting now-empty tourist apartments and subletting them as subsidized housing. Elsewhere, Amsterdam has banned vacation rentals, Barcelona is threatening to follow Lisbon’s lead and take possession of empty properties, and Paris is planning a referendum on Airbnb-type listings. 

Though government crackdowns may be welcomed, it’s also important for tourists to look at the way they travel differently. “It’s up to us to change what’s been going on too,” commented Teixeira, speaking “as a tourist himself”. 

“I look forward to the day I see the respect between tourists and locals return, because they both know each other’s worth.”

Last time I was in Portugal, I raced to Belém Tower as part of a swift grand tour of Lisbon’s sights. This time, I waited, saving the trip as a treat one Friday evening. Walking over at sunset, the grass park overlooking the tower was peppered with groups of Lisbonites, armed with snacks and drinks, enjoying the sinking sun – but the area surrounding the tower itself was near empty. With Alex, I walked the exposed beach at the base of the structure, watching the sun change from orange to a medley of pinks, making sure to take our time.  

Source Article

Next Post

Champions League preview and odds

Tue Oct 27 , 2020
The Champions League returns to Old Trafford and our expert is backing among his Manchester United vs RB Leipzig predictions and tips Manchester United will be hoping to make it two wins out of two in the Champions League when they welcome RB Leipzig to Old Trafford on Wednesday evening. […]

You May Like