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Airbnb: Why Overtourism is a Problem in Lisbon

Lisbon has benefited from the recent influx of tourists. But the rise of Airbnb made rent for locals exrtemely high and has led to protests in Portugal’s capital.

In the summer of 2017 my girlfriend and I spent two months in Lisbon. We spent two weeks in an Airbnb in the Gra├ža neighborhood and then six weeks in an apartment of a friend right in the center of Alfama. Lisbon is a beautiful city with a unique atmosphere: the melancholy of Fado music, the vastness of the Tejo river, the turbulent history at the edge of Europe.

Cobblestones, Trolleys and Flipflops: Daily life in Alfama
Cobblestones, Trolleys and Flipflops: Daily life in Alfama

But it is also a rather small city with narrow streets and dense neighborhoods. This is great when you are able to enjoy it. But the recent popularity of Lisbon and the influx of tourists led to crowded streets, cruiser ships dropping off thousands of people and more and more Airbnb apartments in popular districts like Alfama or Bairro Alto. And this form of overtourism has become a problem.

Don’t get me wrong: This has helped the city to move out of the financial crisis that hit Portugal ten years ago. But it has also led to higher rents for the locals and a form of tourism that changes the original character of the city. In 2009 about 6 million international tourists came to Lisbon. Today it is about 18 million every year. “Is overtourism turning Lisbon into the next Venice?”, asked the British newspaper “The Telegraph” a couple of months ago.

Overtourism in Lisbon: No photos, we are just regular people.
We are just regular people. Can you please take a picture of your own front door?

And I was part of the problem: Whenever I opened my window in our nice Alfama flat I could spot at least 3-5 Airbnb apartments around us. And every three days the people living their would change and some new guests with their trolleys would arrive. The more I looked around the neighborhood, the more protest I witnessed: grafitti against Airbnb, posters against cruise ship tourism, initiatives for a different form of travelling.

Not everybody is happy with Airbnb in Lisbon
A battle about beds: “#Fuck Airbnb – get out” vs. “No!”

Airbnb is offering more than 10,000 properties in central Lisbon. A lot of them are run by a limited number of real estate investors. That puts tenants with old contracts and lower rents under pressure. The consequences: It gets harder and harder – especially for younger and elderly people – to live in the traditional neighborhoods and move out of the city. That of course changes the character of these places and makes them more and more like a Disneyland: A nice place to look at and hang around for a day or two.

Alfama: Cruise ships drop off tourists for a quick sightseeing trip
Alfama: Cruise ships drop off thousands of tourists for a couple of hours before they move on

So, what to do with all of this? The answer is not: “Don’t visit Lisbon and stay away from Airbnb.” It is about understanding that tourism has helped Lisbon to move forward after the financial crisis hit the country. While at the same time understand that we as tourists have a responsibility towards local communities and developments. It makes sense to think about where you want to put your money and who profits from it: real estate investors, local flat owners, international tourist companies or community based initiatives? It is up to us to care abeout these issues. Here are some further links that might help you with these decisions.

  • You Will Soon Be Here: A movie about Lisbon’s Mouraria district asking the question of how to find the right balance between tourism and the needs of the local population.

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