PORTO, Portugal – A constant growth in tourism experienced in recent years by Portugal’s second largest city now menaces to choke the 1996 UNESCO world heritage site in its own success as it risks becoming an urban theme park, top-heavy with genuine and tourist-trap gastro bars and its historical sites bristling with selfie-sticks.
The city of O Porto (The Port), is in Portugal only outdone in terms of size by Lisbon but is still recognized as one of the Iberian Penninsula’s major urban areas and genuinely a global metropolis.
For centuries O Porto was known for its famous, aged, fortified wines, named after the city which, since the Middle Ages, has exported across the world the sublime produce housed in wine cellars perched on Vila Nova de Gaia’s steep slopes.
Nowadays, a brief walk around its old city center will underscore how much the city has evolved in recent years: from a sleepy, charming, crumbling, town to its current tourist-bus traffic jams and scores of restaurants promising Porto’s star plate: the francesinha at bargain prices under 12 euros, roughly twice the amount paid if enjoyed in the city’s less tourist-prone neighborhoods.
Porto’s restaurant tables seem permanently packed with tourists from all nationalities, entrenched behind their cameras or selfie-sticks set to immortalize their sandwiches or shooting the city’s most scenic areas such as the Ribeira with its tight rows of colorful fishermen’s houses or the Lello bookshop, of Harry Potter fame, with a permanent half hour queue outside its doors.
Jaime Freitas, a 71-year-old native from Porto, spoke to efe-epa: “Years ago, there were hardly any visitors and now there is a whole world of people. All you need to do is go to the Livraria Lello and witness the 100 meter (300 feet) line of people waiting to enter the bookstore.”
Freitas believes tourism “is the city’s main revenue stream” although he sometimes ponders if prices may have become too expensive.
“Tourism has shown a negative side after it evicted the old-city neighbors making way for hostels and residences catering to tourism,” he said, referring to the eclosion of Airbnb sites in the old city which have raised rents and forced many residents to the outskirts.
Rents rose by 20 percent just in 2018 whereby a one-bedroom flat in the city center will now set you back 800 euros ($912) a month, 200 euros more than Portugal’s minimum wage and completely beyond the reach of most of its population.
As a result, protest movements have grown among the 214,000 inhabitants of the Old City proper, and while local authorities deny any real estate bubble and have announced the building of 400 flats with reasonable rents for its middle class, housing is becoming a major headache for the population.
But this is not the only problem faced by the city, its traditional commerce stores, one of Porto’s cornerstones are also feeling the pain.
The most recent example is its famed “Cafe Progresso,” which claimed to be Porto’s oldest and has been taken over by Portugal’s Michelin-starred chef, Jose Avillez, who plans to reopen it after a major remodeling under the name of “Cafeina Downtown.”
Locals are mostly nonplussed as they foretell their umpteenth gastro bar.
“Our city’s trademark gastronomy has been slightly adulterated,” Freitas says as all he sees now are “low-quality francesinhas, low-quality sauces, chips and hamburgers.”
However, other Portuguese are paying more attention to Porto’s spectacular growth of tourism: over 1.6 million visitors annually.
Isabel, who lives in neighboring Braga but spends her weekends in Porto told EFE: “There are lots of changes. Some boulevards still require repairs but parks are being restored. Things are slowly changing for the better.”
She speaks right beside a queue lining up to taste yet another local delicacy.
Nothing seems to escape the omnipresent tourist queue, from its restaurants to its bridges crossing the Douro river or leading to its hallowed centuries-old Porto wine cellars.
There may be, however, one exception to Porto’s tourist-jam, the Hard Rock Cafe, an iconic establishment providing shelter to tourists yearning their hamburger fare but which ironically features a queue-less entrance door.