The impact that tourism has is not to be underestimated. In the case of Portugal, numbers show that in 2017 tourism accounted for almost 14% of the country’s GDP. Tourism is currently the biggest economic activity in Portugal regarding exportations.
Tourism is a heavy business – it leaves a deep footprint.
It is not only an economic activity, it’s much more than that. Hence, its consequence transcends the realm of money, numbers and statistics. From cities all over the world we hear news of how detrimental tourism can be. In the case of Lisbon, some of the most common complaints are the inflation of the real estate market, the crowds of tourists filling up the yellow trams and the general loss of authenticity.*
*We choose to define authenticity in this case as the connection to meaning or purpose that is rooted in Portuguese Culture.
Often locals complain that there are too many tourists, too many hotels, too many tuk-tuks, etc… So the solution should be obvious then — let’s reduce the number of tourists and everything goes back to normal. Very simple…
Not so fast though. Tourism is an extremely complex activity that sits within a field of other complex activities, which are an ongoing influence in people’s lives. The point is that there are no easy solutions for problems that exist embedded within complex systems.
Moreover, what locals perceive as being a problem is often limited to what affects them personally. For example, if I take the 28 tram in Lisbon to go to work and it’s packed with tourists, this will become a problem for me. Thus the easy solution is to reduce the number of tourists on the tram. However, this will be perceived differently by another local who doesn’t take the tram.
On the same note, if there is a restaurant full of noisy tourists next to your house, the solution is simple — complain and have the restaurant closed. But if the restaurant closes, this will create several other problems, decrease of the supply of places to eat, the neighbourhood will become less lively and what about the owner’s family? If tourists are forbidden to use the 28 tram this will create pressure on other forms of public transport, which will in its turn bother other people.
What these examples prove is that frequently what we perceive as problems are only superficial consequences, and the real root of the issue remains untouched.
Therefore solutions for complex problems are not only quantitative, they imply deeper changes that act upon the real causes of the problems and not only their consequences.
Solutions that act only at a quantitive level — for example, increasing tourist taxes, decreasing the number of cruise ships or limiting short-term accommodation — although positive, are not enough to address the complexity of the broader tourism ecosystem.
So what kind of solution would have a more holistic benefit?
To understand that, we need to pinpoint what the root problem really is. In my opinion, it is not the increase in tourist crowds or Airbnb hosts. Problems and obstacles such as these are welcome because their resolution makes any system more resilient. But solving these problems individually with quantitative measures will not prevent similar problems from arising in the future. It is like pulling a warm blanket over your head only to leave your feet sticking out in the cold.
In our opinion, the root problem of mass tourism is the excessive focus on economic growth and, most importantly, the development of a touristic stage within the city that is increasingly isolated from the raw and organic realities of local life.
In any given city there are thousands of people working the daily grind. Ultimately, what makes any city authentic, or in other words the purpose of a city, is to be a vital space in which people can live, be challenged, grow, and pursue happiness with their loved ones. We believe this is universal.
Thus, when a traveller visits a city he or she should be in contact with this dynamic.
Otherwise they are just experiencing a staged, profit-oriented parallel reality without actually touching the stream of local life.
On one side, the touristic stage evolves to fit the social media-driven desires and expectations of travellers, which, in the globalised world of today, often have nothing to do with the authentic local reality. Case in point: generic hipster cafes that look the same in every city because they’re designed to attract Instagram users.
On the other side, tourists seeking physical and psychological comfort use travel to escape their own daily grind and to indulge in superficial entertainment and social media instant gratification.
Don’t get us wrong: we have nothing against indulging in entertainment and posting on Instagram. But as far as we’re concerned these things shouldn’t be the end game of your trip — if you want to be part of the solution.
So how might this solution look?
Firstly, it should be qualitative rather than quantitative. What matters is to change why, and consequently how, people travel. Only by changing a traveller’s core intention will all of their decisions down the road be different. That is why focusing purely on the consequences of mass tourism— like too many Airbnbs and tourist traps — will never be fruitful.
If any city — like we’ve stated above — should be a vital space for true human development, then touristic activity should align with this purpose. This is also true at an individual level.
In other words: if the why of travelling is to have an adventure of self discovery through cultural immersion, that will inevitably tackle the root problem and have a positive impact on the destination. Supply for authentic experiences and genuine cultural connection will rise to meet demand. And these will flourish over the superficial touristic stage.
We’re not naive enough to think this change will happen fully. We can’t stop people from consuming in fast fashion multinationals or fast food chains. We can’t stop cruise ships from docking and neighbourhoods from being gentrified, because of the complexity of the ecosystem and the normalised acceptance of these practices.
But that shouldn’t stop us from believing that tourism can be better integrated into local realities, and from pursuing this ideal through our own actions.