The Material and Emotional Toll Mass Tourism Takes on Communities

Tourists are gravitating to cities in greater and greater numbers, and some destinations are completely flooded. We speak with an expert of the impact this has on local residents.

Mass tourism in cities is a growing source of contention among local residents, and Lisbon has been no exception to this phenomenon. Many of us have in one way or another contributed to it — and felt the sting of its effects. As mass tourism expands, we see more and more how it often takes place in neighborhoods that weren’t designed to be tourist destinations. Consequently, as residents and visitors compete for the same space, discrepancies over access to resources emerge.

Illustration by Bogdan Kamuta

Lisbon-based researchers Agustín Cocola-Gant, Ana Gago, and Jaime Jover address this in a chapter for the book The Overtourism Debate: NIMBY, Nuisance, Commodification. Their work stems from a series of interviews performed with local residents in the cities of Barcelona, Seville, and Lisbon.

Atlas sat down with Cocola-Gant, Research Fellow at the Institute of Geography and Spatial Planning, University of Lisbon (IGOT-UL), to discuss their findings. 

You speak about the concept of “overtourism” and how it is expanding, can you elaborate more?

The concept emerged in the past few years to depict something that has been an issue in some destinations for the last 20 or 30 years. It’s a concept that describes how excessive growth in tourism creates problems for the everyday life of residents — and not just social impacts, but also environmental impacts. If we are talking about cities, to what extent can a city absorb tourism flows? When is the point that the residential role of the city and other economic growth of the city are overwhelmed by tourism?  In places like Venice and Barcelona, residents have been complaining about excessive tourism for about 20 years, or even more. So it is not a new thing — the new thing is the concept. 

You also discuss how overtourism doesn’t only affect access to housing, but how it infringes on residents’ right to the city: what does this entail?

We tried to provide an analytical framework to distinguish the impacts and then to try to consider all the impacts taking place at the same time. On the one hand, [overtourism] affects the right to housing, this means people being displaced, long-term rental market disappearing because of short-term rentals, a rise in rental prices, and so on. In areas impacted by tourism, access to housing is very difficult, but at the same time it transforms the reality of the place and the neighborhood. 

It especially dictates commercial change, the facilities that residents need on a daily basis disappear, public spaces become overcrowded. Imagine you can’t walk in the street, especially the elderly; and children can’t play in the street because there is no space for them — this affects families. Or there’s noise 24 hours a day — it creates health problems for some because they can’t sleep. It affects everyday life. 

In relation to the right to the city, it’s not just a spatial thing, it’s not just the right to stay put. It’s the right to live the life you want to live, the life you need to live in the place that you belong to.  You have invested a lot of time, energy, and money to build a place in a neighborhood, and now that place is transformed in a very violent way, and you lose the right to be there. 

My interviewees talk about how people are very sad because they have to move, and they do it by choice. While it seems voluntary, they are really forced to move, because it’s affecting their mental health. 

From the point of view of social justice, overtourism is very problematic, because a lot of politicians and the private sector justify it by arguing it will save the economy. But there is no sustainable economic growth without social justice. It’s not possible. And we need to understand that, and we need to repeat it many times, because the public and  private sector don’t want to listen. 

You also speak about how the touristification of a neighborhood is often coupled with a very specific type of gentrification. You refer to “transnational gentrifiers” — can you tell us more about it?

Lisbon is on the map of global destinations, meaning city-break visitors come here. But it also brings transnational mobile populations that are attracted to Lisbon’s lifestyle. Erasmus students, digital nomads, lifestyle migrants, and second-home buyers are transnational populations that usually have greater consumption power than local residents or are willing to pay higher rents. They are attracted for the same reason that tourists are: the weather, the food, the culture, the way of life, the cost of living, the leisure facilities, etc. 

For instance, it’s known that Erasmus students pick Lisbon not for the quality of the university, but for the quality of the place. Also, since Lisbon became a global destination in the past 10 years, the growth of transnational mobile populations has paralleled the growth of tourists. They are very interrelated. 

These populations want to experience the authentic part of Lisbon, as tourists do. They stay here for six months, three months, a year, it depends. There are different profiles of this mobile population, but all of them want to live in the city center.  

The impact of transnational gentrification is that local people are displaced, as housing in the city center caters to the needs of these transient populations. The new residents, or new users, are usually white, young, middle-class, and, importantly, on the move. They don’t stay here for a long period of time, and they don’t form social networks with locals. For permanent residents, living with people who are on the move is very problematic, because they lose networks of solidarity. In that sense, it is very different from classical gentrification. 

Could you delve into how tourism affects neighborhood life?

Overtourism creates retail change, where the consumption facilities cater to this transient transnational population. And residents who need to go to work, buy groceries —you know, have a normal lifestyle — lose the services that they need in their everyday life.

There’s the question of affordability, because the new shops are expensive. So even if there’re new restaurants, bars, or coffee shops, residents told us they don’t frequent them, because the products there aren’t for them. The menus are in English, they sell certain brands — local residents aren’t comfortable with this. 

We also need to consider how overcrowded public space, where traditional retail facilities have disappeared, creates a daily problem for local residents because now, going to buy groceries means walking further, in crowded streets where you can barely walk.

We want to focus on how these two things particularly affect women’s lives. Children and the elderly are greatly impacted, and traditionally, women serve as caretakers for these two groups. It’s very important to explore this change from a gender perspective, because I think they are the most affected group in this process. 

What happens when your next-door neighbor disappears and now there’s an Airbnb. Before if you needed to step out for half an hour, you’d ask your neighbor to look after your kids, but when that neighbor is gone, you no longer have that solidarity of social capital in the neighborhood. 

Or another example is a woman who told me about her 80-year-old dad. She felt safe because the next-door neighbor had his house key and could help him if he had a problem. But then they didn’t have that neighbor anymore. She found a new place for her dad because it was dangerous for him to live in a building surrounded by Airbnb flats. 

I have demographic data about Barcelona showing how families with children and the elderly are leaving these places.

One thing if I may add, is the feeling of foreignization. Both in Barcelona and in Lisbon, we found that residents feel frustrated because they witness how their neighborhood is changing for people who are transient, who don’t speak the local language, and they see how these newcomers are taking their place.

This accentuates the feeling of structural global inequalities, because they come from the north, they have more money, and they are displacing you. It’s a sense of frustration and dispossession that is very strong. It’s a feeling of just being angry in your everyday life. Behind all of these material problems, there is an emotional loss that takes a psychological toll for some, and can lead to mental health problems. All of the people we spoke to used language related to emotional stress.  

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