The plunder of tourism: Lisbon

There are eyes everywhere. No blind spot left. What shall we dream of when everything becomes visible? We’ll dream of being blind.

Paul Virilio

Mass urban tourism condemns a city to branding, a product to be consumed, a spectacle to be observed and to be rendered observable.  It transforms urban space, its buildings, streets and squares into speculative real estate, its commercial activity into merchants of the local-exotic, its politics and security services into instruments assuring the free and safe flow of tourist, its ecology into entrances and exits, its multiple, complex and intense ways of life into purchasable “authenticity” removed from time and frozen in space and within all of which its inhabits must either flee, for lack of economic means to survive the pillage or become themselves actors for the selling of the city.

Any number of cities could be cited as products of global tourism.  For the United Nations World Tourism Organisation, the benefits of a well managed “responsible, sustainable and universally accessible” tourism are indisputable.  What these terms mean however is far from clear.  The profits to be had are undeniable, and on a scale that is astounding.  According to the same United Nations’ body, current developments and forecasts include:

  • International tourist arrivals grew by 4.6 % in 2015 to 1,184 million
  • In 2015, international tourism generated US$ 1.5 trillion in export earnings
  • UNWTO forecasts a growth in international tourist arrivals of between 3.5% and 4.5% in 2016
  • By 2030, UNWTO forecasts international tourist arrivals to reach 1.8 billion (UNWTO Tourism Towards 2030)

Stated differently, tourism amounts to 10% of the world’s GDP, 7% of all exports, 30% of all services exports, adding up to 1.5 trillion US dollars in annual benefits, which in terms of employment, is one in every eleven jobs on the planet!  Tourism today economically equals or surpasses the oil, food or automobile industries. (UNTWO)  Before such weight, few political regimes resist.

What any of this of course has to do with responsibility, sustainability or universal accessibility is anyone’s guess.  What is evident is that tourism feeds and is sustained by all manner of industries (financial, construction, transportation, services, etc.) which have rarely displayed any concern with the UNTWO’s three ideals.  On the contrary, what tourism condemns cities and other spaces to is pillaging, not only of modest private property, but of commons in all of their variety.  As pure spectacle and fantasy, nothing is potentially immune to tourism’s Midas touch.  And what is left behind are places, natural and human, and forms of life, savaged beyond repair.

A great deal more could be said, must be said, and even more, done.  This modest reflection serves only as an introduction to a documentary by the Lisbon based Left Hand Rotation collective entitled Terramotourism, a visual essay-intervention on the ravages of a mass tourism of very recent vintage.

Drawing on a parallel with the 1755 earthquake that destroyed most of the city centre, the collective writes:

On the 1st of November of 1755, an earthquake destroyed the city of Lisbon.  Its impact was such that it removed man from the centre of creation.  Its ruins legitimated an enlightened despotism.

Lisbon trembles again, shaken by a tourist earthquake that is transforming the city at the speed of a cruise ship.  Its impact pushes the inhabitant away from the centre of the city.  What new absolutisms will find their justification here?

As the right to the city is knocked down, drowned by the discourse of identity and authenticity, the city creaks announcing its collapse and the urgency of a new way of looking at ourselves, of responding to a transformation, this time predictable, which the desperation of capitalism pretends to be inevitable.

Terremotourism is a subjective portrait of a city and its transformation over the last six years.


For further work by the Left Hand Rotation collective, see the Museu de los Desplazados.

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