Portugal’s Van Life Community Challenges New Regulations on Wild Camping

An updated version of the Portuguese Highway Code has instituted strict measures to control the van life trend — but the country’s autocaravanistas are fighting back.

Van lifers in Portugal are facing new hurdles as a result of updated road rules.

The latest version of Portugal’s Código da Estrada (Highway Code), which went into effect on January 9, 2021, establishes the “prohibition of parking and overnight stays by campervans outside of authorized areas.”

This addition, which is commonly referred to as article 50-A, has drawn ire from the country’s van life community. These self-described autocaravanistas consider it to be both ambiguous and unreasonably strict — and some of them are taking action to change it.

On January 3, the couple behind the popular Instagram and YouTube account Travel Inspire published this post criticizing the new regulation. The post “went somewhat viral and awoke many people who weren’t familiar with this issue,” they tell Atlas. It has since amassed more than 12,000 likes.

Travel Inspire encouraged people to sign two petitions in protest; one of them has 6,746 signatures to date, while the other has 7,886 signatures

The latter was created by Sandra Santos, a dedicated member of Portugal’s van life community. She tells Atlas that she was motivated to make the petition because she loves the freedom of traveling with her family in their van, and the new prohibition puts that freedom at risk.

According to Santos, it doesn’t make sense to institute this new rule based on the alleged misconduct of van lifers; for one, they weren’t the only ones breaking the rules, and the violations didn’t only take place between 9 p.m. and 7 a.m. (which is the defined time period for “overnight stays”).

The momentum her petition generated led to a meeting of the Assembleia da República (National Assembly) on March 10, in which Santos presented her argument for changing the new Highway Code.

She says the next step is to attract the interest of a political party so that the issue isn’t forgotten, and to raise awareness through future campaigns. According to her, “The ideal outcome would be the revocation of [article 50-A],” but she doesn’t believe it will happen.

Another individual who’s passionate about this issue is Manuel Bragança, president of the Federação Portuguesa de Autocaravanismo (Portuguese Federation of Caravaning). He told Atlas that the new code is unacceptably vague on distinctions between public and private spaces and types of vehicles. He also says that its prohibition of “overnight stays” is “illegal and unconstitutional on various levels.”

According to Bragança, the new regulation also represents the transformation of a local issue (in the Costa Vicentina area) into a national problem. He believes that the country’s tourism and economic authorities should have been more assertive in trying to resolve it, since article 50-A is “highly damaging to itinerant tourism in campervans, as it jeopardizes its essence, restricting a group of citizens in a negative and discriminatory way without justification.”

The new rule, according to Bragança, will motivate many van lifers to travel in Spain instead. 

Travel Inspire agrees: “We are hopeful that something will change, but we think that this year people who travel in vans in Portugal will have to adapt or travel in other countries, like many people are [already] doing.”

Apart from the threat of article 50-A, Portugal has ideal conditions for itinerant tourism. According to the Van Life Index, a recent ranking by the Cool Camping platform, it’s the fourth-best country in the world for van lifers — while Spain occupies the top spot.

Source: Cool Camping

On a practical level, the new rule has already started to have a tangible effect, as local authorities are issuing fines to those who disobey it.

The updated Highway Code gives supervisory powers to the Guardia Nacional Republicana (GNR), Polícia de Segurança Pública, Polícia Marítima, and municipalities regarding overnight camping and parking of vans and campervans outside of authorized areas.

From January 9 to March 16, the Faro branch of the GNR registered 94 offenses in the district — which includes the whole Algarve — related to the prohibition, a source at the branch tells Atlas. They added that they’re paying close attention to the effects of this particular change, but it’s too early to analyze the situation’s evolution.

Before this update to the Highway Code, the laws surrounding wild camping in Portugal were vague and largely unenforced. Although they were never technically allowed to park wherever they wanted, most van lifers managed to flout the rules without facing punishment.

But as Atlas previously reported, last year tensions around the trend started to rise. As the COVID-19 pandemic drew increasing numbers of van-dwelling tourists to Portugal, locals began to complain about inconsiderate campers disturbing the peace and damaging the environment.

In late 2020, the situation reached a boiling point. Atlas published reports of organized campaigns and threats against campervans, and conflicting accounts from locals and tourists in the Western Algarve.

According to an anonymous local source, since the new Highway Code came into effect, most of the van lifers in the Sagres area have either moved to authorized campgrounds or to small pieces of land where they’re creating their own unofficial — and therefore illegal — campsites. 

Atlas asked the GNR for confirmation of this trend, but did not receive a response.

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