Among the papers found in Portuguese writer Fernando Pessoa’s possession after his death in 1935 was an English-language book he finished but never bothered to publish. Lisbon: What the Tourist Should See was written as part of an imagined public-relations campaign for his beloved city, which Pessoa felt was neglected in favor of places like London and Paris. The book, finally released in 1992, highlights the greatest hits of the Portuguese capital: the 16th-century monastery that is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site, the nearby town famous for its eclectic castles and mansions, and the winding fisherman’s quarter where locals go to hear fado singers perform.
These sites still exist, though in a universe distinct from Pessoa’s. In a sense, he got his wish: Lisbon has become one of the most popular tourist destinations in Europe, and is, as a result, in on the cusp of a massive physical transformation. Restaurants, luxury hotels, and “concept” boutiques are springing up all over the city. Cranes mar the views from hillside miradouros and rooftop bars. During peak season, tuk-tuks and double-decker sightseeing buses prowl the city for customers. Cruise ships loom in the harbor. English is the lingua franca.
This is in large part to accommodate the record 12.7 million people who visited the city last year, and the even larger numbers of those projected to come. If trends persist, locals worry that the city will turn into Paris—only without Eurodisney in the suburbs.
In recent years, “overtourism” has become a travel-industry buzzword, a phenomenon created by the perfect storm of budget airlines, short-term rental websites, and social media. (“You know, the Instagram island,” an Australian backpacker said to me recently when describing the Greek island of Santorini.) The problem is especially acute in Europe, which opened the floodgates to short-term travel in 1997 by liberalizing its transportation market. Suddenly, dozens of new, low-cost regional airlines began advertising pocket change prices, and average trip length plummeted. Formerly sleepy cities became crash pads for weekenders, cobblestone streets echoed with the sounds of clicking heels and rolling suitcases, and urban infrastructures strained under the pressure.
While Lisbon is not as fully saturated as, say, Barcelona, the threat is on the horizon. It’s no longer a novelty to see bachelorette parties in identical raunchy T-shirts careening down the avenues, or four-euro mojitos hawked on sidewalks. The foreigners are coming; the question is whether the Portuguese capital can effectively manage them.
There are no precise standards for gauging overtourism. One thinks of Justice Potter Stewart’s famous definition of pornography—you know it when you see it. And you see it when Europeans and Americans flood downtown areas, and intoxicated visitors relieve themselves in public. Tourists in Europe are hard to avoid. Their presence wouldn’t be so vexing if they weren’t also good for local economies: Nearly 17 percent of Portugal’s GDP came from tourism in 2017, and that number is expected to rise by more than 5 percent this year. In Spain, tourism made up 15 percent of the GDP, expected to increase 3 percent; and in Greece, these figures are 20 and 5 percent, respectively. Still, local government regulation has not caught up to the market, and in hot spots like Barcelona, some officials claim that it costs the city more to manage visitors than it earns from their trips.