Van Lifers Report Broken Windows and Rising Tension as Locals Take Action Against Illegal Camping

As the van life movement continues to gain momentum, tension between campers and locals is increasing in the Western Algarve.

Updated Dec. 10, 2020

Residents of the area around Sagres and the Costa Vicentina are fed up with tourists’ repeated disregard for local laws — and have decided to take matters into their own hands.

Over the past several weeks, locals have been organizing groups to go to beach parking lots and make campers leave. According to an anonymous source, their objective is simple: tell people to go to official campsites.

This source, who is a local Portuguese resident, says that “[t]he actions were taken in a very simple way. A group went to several beaches to talk with the campervans and tell them to go to the camping parks. No one was sleeping because it was early and there was no violence.”

However, conflicting accounts emerge from some of the van lifers — which could mean that various groups are taking action, and by different means.

Miriam Steffens, a German woman who’s been traveling with her boyfriend in their van, describes an incident in early November when several vans’ windows were shattered in the middle of the night.

Steffens explains that there were around 10–15 vans parked overnight at Praia do Zavial, a popular beach near Vila do Bispo. At about 2 a.m., she says she and her boyfriend were awoken by a strong, heavy noise and the sensation of their van shaking slightly. They opened the window shades to look outside, but couldn’t see anything.

After a few minutes, they exited the vehicle and saw two large rocks in the road. They realized that someone had thrown a rock at their van and broken the plastic side window.

They then discovered that every van in the parking lot had been damaged by a rock. Some of them had smashed the windows and narrowly missed the people sleeping inside. The people who threw the rocks were nowhere in sight.

According to Steffens, at least one person tried to report this event to the police. But when he told them that he was parked at the beach, they implied that because he was parked illegally, they couldn’t — or wouldn’t — do anything. Steffens says that this is why she didn’t try to report the incident; she knew she was in the wrong to begin with.

This could explain why, according to the anonymous local source, there have been no reports to the police or healthcare institutions regarding these incidents. Atlas asked the GNR in Vila do Bispo to confirm this, but did not receive a response.

UPDATE Dec. 10: According to the GNR’s public relations office in Faro, “upon the appropriate investigations, no report or indication of the occurrence of the situations described was identified.”

When asked about the window-smashing incident, the local source said that he’d heard about it, but “no one knows who did it.” He also said that he heard a claim that people “came with baseball bats,” which he classified as “bullshit.” 

That story is also circulating among campers; another anonymous source tells Atlas that he’s heard people have been “threatened with baseball bats.” He also describes rumors of people putting stones in front of the vans’ wheels so they couldn’t move, smashing their doors, picking fights in the water (while surfing), and various other incidents — although he didn’t witness any of this firsthand.

The local Portuguese source doubts these claims: “Since [the campers] know they are doing illegal things, the only thing they can do is make up stories, because it’s easy.” 

But Steffens does have firsthand experience, and it doesn’t end with the broken windows. A few weeks after the first incident, she found out from a fellow camper that locals were using social media groups to organize actions against the vans. Someone within the group had decided to warn the campers, so they left Zavial early.

When they arrived in Vila do Bispo, they ran into a group of about 10–15 men who came up to the vans and yelled at them to leave. The men were filming the encounter; Steffens believes they post photos and videos in the online groups to identify the offending vehicles.

After this encounter, Steffens and her boyfriend decided to stop parking at the beaches and stay at campsites instead. She says all the campsites in the area are becoming more crowded now, indicating that the locals’ actions are having the desired effect. 

“Now the beaches are almost empty, and almost every spot where you could park during the night, either the locals are coming or the police. Almost everybody is staying at campsites now,” says Steffens.

It seems that in most cases, the campers are cooperating. According to the local source, “[People from the] campervans didn’t discuss; they know they are doing an illegal practice, so they went to the camping sites.” But in at least one encounter, “two women from different vans challenged the group.”

Steffens adds that while most people are trying to act with respect, “some are ignorant.” According to The Portugal News, when locals previously tried to stop wild camping in a less direct manner, some van lifers “reacted aggressively and even went as far as physically attacking them and spitting on them in the middle of the pandemic.”

Marta Cabral, president of the Rota Vicentina Association, tells Atlas that the association hasn’t received any reports of violence or threatening behavior from locals toward campers.

However, with regard to the locals taking action, “we know this is happening. [It’s] still early to say [if] it will have any effect, but I’d rather focus on the cause, and this is the problem caused by a situation that is totally out of control,” says Cabral. “Local people taking action against this is really not good news; we hope the government will act immediately to correct this big problem.”

According to both Steffens and the local Portuguese source, local authorities are in fact stepping up their efforts to control wild camping by issuing more fines than they used to. It’s unclear if this is a result of increased pressure from residents, or if the police are simply trying to accomplish the same thing at the same time.

Either way, there’s no question that the coronavirus pandemic has exacerbated the issue. In addition to inspiring more people to travel in vans, it’s increased locals’ frustration with the lack of precautions taken by some tourists.

As the local source puts it, “[The problem] got worse when the van rental companies started to promote themselves as a ‘safe way to travel during COVID.’ This is complete nonsense, because driving down [the] Costa Vicentina, it’s possible to see the vans sharing their lifestyle with no social distancing, and if we are talking about health concerns, it is [even more] nonsense, [as] most of the vans don’t have an interior toilet.”

According to Cabral, “The law is not followed or [enforced]. Other countries have serious, strict COVID restrictions, and these people find here a kind of ‘free paradise’ where they can stay as they please.”

Steffens adds that due to the pandemic, many tourists are choosing to stay in Portugal longer instead of returning home: “Usually, tourists would go home, but [during this season] it’s getting more crowded.”

The local Portuguese source explains the situation that led up to this point, and why citizens finally decided to take action:

“The actions taken by the locals are a consequence of what’s been happening during the last years. Wild camping is not a new thing [on the] Costa Vicentina, but before, when it was only 30–40 vans across [the whole] Natural Park, there was not really an issue.

“What motivates the locals to ‘do something’ is the huge amount of vans in the Natural Park, the huge amount of garbage, the smell of urine and feces [in] hot and sunny weather, the lack of respect and the sarcasm by the campervans when people asked them to leave, pick up the litter, and not use the bushes as toilets, and the illegal camping activity — because, after all, it is illegal.”

As Atlas previously reported, wild camping is technically illegal in Portugal, but until recently it was relatively easy for many people to flout this rule. Lots of van lifers continued to park at the beach instead of officially designated campsites, and rarely ran into problems.

The local source tells Atlas that bureaucratic hurdles made it virtually impossible for the police to control the problem. He explains that if a Portuguese citizen were to receive a fine from the authorities, they would have to pay it on the spot or within 24 hours. 

Meanwhile, fines issued to foreign citizens (which generally ranged from €200 to €500, according to the local source) had to be sent to their country of residence. They often expired before reaching the final destination, or never arrived at all — essentially making them meaningless. This gave campers free reign to park where they pleased, without fear of consequences.

The local source points to Australia, New Zealand, and the U.S. as examples of countries that are taking a firmer stance against wild camping.

But procedures are changing in Portugal too, making it easier for police to enforce the laws that prohibit overnight camping in beach parking lots —regardless of the offender’s nationality.

In late November, the Portuguese Código da Estrada (Traffic Code) was updated to further clarify the areas in which camper vans are allowed to park and stay overnight, as reported by Público. The new code clearly states that these practices are prohibited outside of specifically designated areas.

Público also reported that the GNR has increased its efforts to inform the public of the current rules regarding this issue.

According to the local source, “Right now, everything is against the vans. They don’t have a chance; they have to start acting like responsible tourists.”

Many people are trying to do just that. Steffens, for example, decided to stop parking at the beaches due partly to the threat of consequences from locals and the authorities, but also because she understands where they’re coming from.

“It has made me aware of the problem and the fact that the locals are upset. Now I understand that it’s too many people, and I understand the locals and the police. We should respect it now, or it will get worse for everyone: the locals, nature, and us… Everybody has to respect the rules,” says Steffens.

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