Lisbon residents lament downside of tourism
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Lisbon residents lament downside of tourism

Pressure grows for referendum to tackle holiday rental boom that’s pushed up housing prices

A woman takes a picture of a tram in the Alfama neighbourhood in Lisbon on June 6. (Photo: Reuters)
A woman takes a picture of a tram in the Alfama neighbourhood in Lisbon on June 6. (Photo: Reuters)

LISBON - Rosa Santos has lived in Lisbon’s historic Castelo neighbourhood for decades but a boom in holiday rentals has made her feel like she does not belong. Plans for a housing referendum are giving her a glimmer of hope.

“Lisbon has stopped being a city and became an amusement park,” 60-year-old Santos said as she stood in a square popular with tourists. “I want to have neighbours: young, old, immigrants, foreigners … but people who actually live here.”

To help people like Santos feel at home again, a Lisbon housing group is campaigning for a referendum that, if successful, would stop companies offering short-term rentals for tourists, such as Airbnb, from operating in residential buildings.

The group announced on Wednesday that it had collected enough signatures to request that city hall lawmakers consider the proposal. They will submit the over 9,000 signatures after the summer.

However, the legal process to hold a city-wide referendum can be complex as it must be approved by both lawmakers and the constitutional court.

“There are more short-term rentals than houses for people in Lisbon’s historic centre,” said Raquel Antunes, part of the group pushing for the referendum. “We need to put the brakes on this.”

In the Santa Maria Maior district, which includes Castelo but also the well-known Alfama neighbourhood, more than 60% of housing is used for holiday rentals, according to the movement and several studies.

New hotels and holiday rentals have mushroomed in Lisbon since 2015, when the tourism boom started to gain pace. Portugal remained one of western Europe’s poorest nations and locals with low wages have struggled to cope with the impact on rents and house prices.

In Lisbon, rents have soared 94% since 2015, according to the housing data specialists Confidencial Imobiliario. House prices skyrocketed 186%.

The situation is similar elsewhere.

Spain has also struggled to balance promoting tourism and addressing locals’ concerns. The Spanish government last week announced a crackdown on short-term and seasonal holiday lettings.

However, the referendum proposal is certain to spark opposition. Tourism was crucial for Portugal’s recovery from the 2010-14 economic and debt crisis, and holiday rentals associations say their work is crucial for the industry.

Others argue that holiday rentals have revitalised the city centre.

As the housing movement made their announcement, one local resident walked past and said that if it wasn’t for holiday rentals, old buildings would continue to decay.

People protest against increasing rents and house prices in Lisbon in September 2023. Many blame the boom in holiday rentals for pushing up prices in the Portuguese capital. (Reuters)

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