We all are tourists

How can we create sustainable urban environments?

This article was translated by Citizenship Academy from “Somos todos turistas“, published in Público [PT], 2015.12.20.

Vitor Belenciano – text / Sibila Lind – Video

Lisbon and the world find them self at a crossroads of mass tourism. Attractive XXI century cities are in between being metropolitan successful cities and their victims. Dutch Marc Glaudemans is wondering how we can create sustainable urban environments.

We are all tourists. Even those who don’t necessarily identify with it. “And it’s good to have this perception, in order not to look at the tourists as if they were aliens,” says Marc Glaudemans laughing. He is the founder and director of Stadslab European Urban Design Laboratory, an international nonprofit think tank, and also an urban design laboratory that intervenes at the level of mass tourism and its impact in public space, of urban development and of everyday life in the European cities.

“Tourism can’t be eliminated, it’s something we simply have to adjust,” he adds, “but it can be managed, regulated or sustained.”

Academia Cidadã (Citizenship Academy), together with City Council, challenged Marc to develop a Master Class program in Lisbon, which will be held in April 2016. This will feature international and Portuguese participants, addressing gentrification and mass tourism in Lisbon. The neighborhood that will be intervened will be Mouraria.

Lisbon, full of the tuc-tucs once seen in Thailand, is an interesting case study. In recent years it has become one of the European Cities with the largest tourism growth – 15,4% in 2014 (compared to 2013) according to Lisbon Tourism Association.

Still, nothing structural is in jeopardy, he says. It’s possible to learn from past mistakes made in other public environments, such as Barcelona. At the same time, Lisbon can serve as a model for other cities, in a historical mark where tourism is one of the most challenging global issues.

Arriving at Chiado, the city’s heart, we can realize that his observations stands within the context of what’s happening in the city.

“Symptoms repeat themselves from one city to another. Usually begins with the joy of tourists’ arrival, and then comes concern, and later the reaction.”

That’s it. Initially there was satisfaction with the economic benefits and pride from the recognition. Then some apprehension among those who live in the historic district and surrounding areas by the disturbances, realizing that something must be done. There is cause for alarm but we’re facing a new reality, with all that it means in terms of conflict.

In the cafés and terraces, on the streets, in the public environment, the hostility between natives and foreigners is still subtle, but there’s no need to be clairvoyant to anticipate it will increase. It’s seen in the boredom expressions, in the misunderstandings.

Never has tourism in Portugal been discussed as much as in recent years. For a long time it appeared to be a seasonal issue, confined to the Summer in Algarve. For a long time the country has been a summer destination. But the flow of recent years is reaching some Portuguese cities – with emphasis on Lisbon and Oporto – and it has changed our way of thinking.

“The Seasonal idea has died. Today we think about tourism as an annual phenomenon” says Marc. There is a temporal increase in tourist’s use of the public environments. Tourism is no longer something occasional, it’s a constant thing. Nowadays, it’s always tourism time.”

The very idea of tourism has changed. We say we are living the age of mass tourism, but only if it is conceived as something with some kind of uniformity in terms of  times, places and preferences, because there are endless offerings: a variety of places, landscapes and experiences. We witnessed an intensification of the known types of tourism, somehow related to the growth of the low cost flights, which intensified low cost airlines’ users.

There’s an endless proliferation of all kinds of tourism: oenological, survival, gastronomy, sexual, religious, cultural, LGBT, beach tourism. The result is market segmentation. We find as many destinations as potential consumer segments. The current tourism isn’t mass, although it’s more massive than ever, fulfilling itself from the emotional consumption of a certain place.

“We suck the landscape in order to reveal a story, obtain an experiment, ensure an emotion. So the tourist towns find themselves obliged to “look like” this imagery that the traveller expects to find.”

On our walk through Chiado we stopped at the bottom of Garrett Street next to one of those global brand stores found all over the world. Homogenization is almost always reflected in these examples. City centers lose their identity when they are taken over by these kinds of shops.

“It’s partly true because they tend to grow in a similar way everywhere,” says Marc, “but the secret, as always, is to balance this type of global trade with the local one. In this case, they kept the building facade, so it’s not too intrusive, but what we find inside is the same here or in Rome.”

It’s true. But contrary to what one might think, this kind of trade is not just appreciated by the locals. Tourists – even those who say they cherish the difference – also do not want to lose sight of that. After all, they want to find some familiarity in the visiting environment.

“This type of pavement, buildings, people or food, are part of the Portuguese context and are exalted. Tourists expect somehow to find the natives’ identity, but they simultaneously want what they have at home. The same kind of comfort, cafes, food, shops. Tourists like to feel away from home, but not too far.”

It’s already known that tourism lies between unresolved tensions. That’s not just an issue here. How can we create consistent sustainable urban environments and how can we preserve human heritage are matters at stake and under discussion worldwide? Creating consistent and sustainable urban environments how to preserve the urban heritage are discussed globally. Can the majority benefit from these units industry instead of just a few privileged groups?

“That’s what all cities are looking for: preserving authenticity while absorbing a large amount of tourists. It’s difficult because of the very transformative nature of tourism, even when predominantly individual, and can have a massive impact. Tourism 2.0 or 3.0 – such as Airbnb or similar online platforms – have little impact. They’re based on what exists and on individual characteristics and these areas may well lose its distinctive character and become just ‘touristic’, less attractive for tourists and locals.”

So, how can we ensure the environmental, social and cultural sustainability of our cities? The diagnosis is well known: over occupied public space, homogenization of trade, trivialization of the urban landscape, locals leaving downtown, increased rental prices, driven by demand for temporary housing, proliferation of hostels or other forms of accommodation that endanger the residential function for the locals. It’s not only the residents’ life quality that’s questioned, but their ability to live here. When trading benefits are imposed to the residents’ interests, the effect is often the degeneration of what was attractive to visitors: the unique atmosphere of the local cultural environment.

#LM Miguel Manso - mark galudemans - 8 de dezembro de 2015

Until now, most cities reacted by implementing containment policies, restriction or relocation. In limiting cruises, building replicas of tourist attractions to relocate visitors pressure, diversification of cultural offerings so that not only historical places are visited, limiting the nights allowed for private homes rental, visitors’ number control, or regulation on maximum use of Airbnb. Those are just some measures recently taken in various parts of the world. In Paris, one of the most traditional touristic cities, tourists are seen as “temporary citizens” with rights but also obligations. Still these measures are not enough. We must anticipate changes, on their upward curve, to better manage them.
Such anticipation policies “should include planning tools and integrated development areas assuring a long term safeguard aimed to urban development balance” , says Marc, pointing to the participation of all.

“These planning tools development are a co-creation process, in which public and private actors and citizens must work together to formulate a strategic vision of their neighborhoods.”

In such a collaborative process, balanced development can be defined by all stakeholders, from a shared base of values and interests.

“Individual actions leading to gentrification or tourism overload are rational, but the whole effect can be potentially negative for the entire community,” says Marc. “That’s why a development plan for a certain area should be supported in the long run, so that all players can see their aspirations fulfilled. At least, to some extent.”

The Tourism industry was not taken very seriously for many years. It was consensual between governmental, international organizations and the media that energy, oil, finance, science, agriculture and, maybe, culture, were vital for economic development. Tourism wasn’t one of them. Today, according to Marc, “it’s one of the most important economic industries. And it’s not like the oil industry, where there are maybe around ten big players. In tourism all is much more scattered, individual and democratic.” That’s true, but competition between destinations is also fierce. Today all cities want to have a pleasant, distinctive and unique touch.

According to the Secretary-General of the World Tourism Organization (UNWTO), Jordanian Taleb Rifai quoted by El Pais, today’s world is living two revolutions: “Technology, that’s connecting the virtual world, and Tourism, connecting us.” In 2014, according to the UN organization, 1,138 million tourists had crossed at least one border – which means that more than one out of seven in the world held an international trip. Another significant finding is that one in every eleven jobs were created in the world through tourism, although there are also many critics suggesting that this kind of jobs are precarious, low-paid and based on temporary contracts.

It’s undeniable: tourism generates income and sometimes rehabilitates urban areas. But it can also contribute to decreased local life quality. This leaves attractive cities at a crossroads. Sometimes one gets the idea that the tourism industry takes advantage of what the city and the community have to offer (hospitality, streets, monuments, equipment) but the economic results doesn’t ever revert to all, but only to some private agents.

According to Marc, this is a partial truth.

“Tourists and industry companies should pay specific taxes that may ultimately benefit the entire community if the municipal authorities will spend them wisely. But it’s true that these fiscal instruments can be improved and adjusted to handle with new types of tourism, not always covered by outdated tax systems. Amsterdam, for example, has an agreement with Airbnb: a 5% tax is added to all reservations made through this platform. This is a way to create a level playing field, not favouring a specific type of tourism. But there are more radical proposals such as enrolment rates in Venice or accommodation.”

It was known this week that Lisbon City Hall will not, contrary to what was expected, start charging in January a Municipal Fee to the tourists arriving by air or sea. But those who will sleep in a Lisbon hotel will have to pay one euro a night, from the first day 2016.

To Marc Gloudemans, the important thing is “make sure that tourism benefits are invested equally throughout the city and that solutions are created to maintain a certain symmetry”, even in areas off the tourist circuit. “These areas do not reap benefits, but can feel the negative impacts, such as traffic congestion or increased prices of goods and services, for example.”

Municipalities must create conditions for a fair distribution, to avoid increasing inequalities due to the tourism economic benefits. “I would rather see it as an opportunity for cities attracting large numbers of tourists and not as a problem.”

Nowadays, it’s no longer possible to think of tourism issues from a local perspective. To prove it, Marc will point to the buildings in the city center or Martim Moniz that are still being constructed, with ads on them from international real estate. “This is a global phenomenon,” Marc reflects. “Probably someone in London will eventually buy this building and build here a hotel. This is an indicator of how the capital flow is global and urban regeneration is not only a local process, because the parties are from different origins and actually with diverse interests. It’s needed to think of these global forces and today Lisbon is a part of this global community.”

Interestingly, when he thinks of today’s successful stories, meaning the cities that manage to have harmonious relationships with tourism, he doesn’t recall any major city or touristic areas. “Minor cities may be able to have a higher living standard, in its relation to tourism,” he says.

“There will always be exceptions, but when I think of San Sebastian in the Spanish Basque Country, I envision an attractive coastal town, which is above all a place to live and work in, integrating tourist specifies in its identity, such as gastronomy, the film festival or surfing. Lyon, France, is another example of a city that retains its matrix, combined with international expression events. The cities known for specific seasonal events, rather than being destinations throughout the year, may as well be better prepared to avoid a negative spiral. But there aren’t any perfect formulas, and situations may change quickly. “

Marc is in Lisbon thinking about how to manage the contradictions that are now constant in global tourism. In the Mouraria neighborhood streets he says it’s still possible to distinguish the proximity relations and there is a humanized lifestyle. But that’s not what led him to choose the neighborhood to the heart of his speech.

“We chose this area because there are many Pakistanis, Indians and Chinese, that is, besides being a traditional neighborhood, it has a second layer, which makes it of such a complexity. In Barcelona, ​​for example, neighborhoods like this are in an accelerated transformation process, and some have lost their basic characteristics. “

A neighborhood is a complex ecosystem. Not surprisingly, the tension manifests itself between occasional residents and regulars, between traditional commerce and new activities or between day and night users. Harmony is often unstable. But it’s of this actions combination, and how different actors relate to each other, that depends on its balance. Coexistence is not always easy, but it’s possible. It requires public action, but with tweezers. Sometimes it’s better to be guiding or just regulatory, rather than being proactive.


Stadslab is a part of the Fontys University in the Netherlands and helped to introduce innovative models of urban governance. In the Moorish quarter, the idea is the same. Our action is to help municipalities and private actors in order to ensure a balanced urban development. Portugal is not familiarized with the development area and we believe this collaborative co-creation model can be beneficial here.

Master Classes in April will be supervised by international experts, but we’ll have a mix of local and international professionals, including municipal workers, architects, planners and community organizations. The goal is to work for ten days with a group of 15 professionals and maintain an interactive relationship with citizens and local organizations. The final presentation of the ideas and recommendations will take place at a public event.

Although, souvenir shops, new cafes and grocerie shops promises you typical Portuguese products, it is actually the outcome of gentrification symptoms in the historic area, but Marc still believes its typical basic character still remains. You feel that urban regeneration is still organic, not artificial, which is good. We saw just some large scale irreparable changes. A transformation is taking place, but it’s slow and organic, which is good for the city. Its historic character is being recreated, because some of its buildings are degraded.

But it’s unstable. You need to re-evaluate constantly. The tourism industry is experiencing disruptive processes. For example, in New York, it’s estimated that 50% of Airbnb supply is not in private hands, but in companies, to escape the hotel standards. These are the XXI century cities living among paradoxes: be seductive, but not wanting to be crushed by its desire; assuming that tourism can be greedy, but without renouncing it, understanding that there is a tenuous line separating successful tourism, from being its victim.

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