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Southern European Overtourism: How to Preserve National Heritage Sites in Countries Like Portugal?

Updated: Aug 5, 2023

In November 1972, the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) inaugurated the list identifying cultural and natural properties of "outstanding universal value."

As of 2021, the number of cultural and natural UNESCO World Heritage sites in Europe is close to 1100. Ten countries in Europe hold the greatest number of sites: Italy [58], Germany [51], France [49], Spain [49], Russia [30], Greece [18], Portugal [17], Poland [17], Czech Republic [16], and Belgium [15].

With some of the longest and most diverse coastlines stretching in a mild Mediterranean climate, Italy, France, Spain, Greece, and Portugal have become one of the most sought-after destinations for their natural and cultural wonders.

Their well-preserved historical markers tell many tales of the regions. Paleolithic art, man-made sacred architecture built up against natural landscapes in unique settings, to become the pillars of each country's identity and national psyche.

Portugal’s seventeen sites include one natural site, the laurel forest type in Madeira, an outstanding relict of the previously widespread Laurisilva Forest of Madeira, declared a natural heritage in 1999.

Laurisilva of Madeira in Portugal by Tim Schnarr. Browse through the whole gallery. Now, before browsing through the list of the sixteen cultural sites of Portugal, at the bottom of the article, why not take a wild guess?

Thanks to UNESCO, strata of history have been preserved: historical city centers and their fortifications – each with its integrated system of defense, sacred places that honor Catholic faith and its culture, and Paleolithic artwork on rocks that trace back humanity at its best.

Along its majestic coastlines surrounded by the Atlantic Ocean, what defines Portugal is its far-stretching hills covered in vineyards. The country counts around 250 indigenous varieties of wine.

The two wine regions protected by UNESCO are the Alto Douro, where wine has been produced by "traditional landholders for some 2,000 years. And since the 18th century, port wine is world-famous for its quality. This long tradition of viticulture has produced a cultural landscape of outstanding beauty that reflects its technological, social, and economic evolution."

Portugal's wine regions and the Alto Douro vineyards. Click here for the map in full size.

The other region is the Landscape of the Pico Island Vineyard Culture in the Azores (2004). "Vine-growing on the island of Pico began in the late 15th century when the island was first settled. Thanks to the nutrient-rich volcanic soil and the dry, warm microclimate of the hillsides, protected from the wind by rough, dark stone walls and warmed by the sun's rays, the Verdelho grape variety acquired exceptional ripening conditions. Later, it was exported to many European and American countries and even landed on the table of the Russian court. These vineyards planted in lava soil are framed by dry stone walls, forming small enclosures called 'currais' or 'curraletas', which protect them from the sea breeze while letting in the sunshine necessary for their ripening." [Source:].

This year’s wildfires, landslides, heavy storms, and other natural disasters have devastated more natural wonders, with residents losing their houses and lands. These events should contribute to our collective concern for appropriate behavior, common sense, and discernment when traveling in high season.

One of the important decisions to be made, for instance, is when to travel. Out of season, most of these regions lose nothing of their magic, with greater fairness to the local population, fewer people around, and more hidden gems to be untapped. With more flexibility at work, more people single, and some comfortably retired, the ventilation of travels all year-round could help ease congestion.

The Conscious Travel Foundation, for instance, is a membership non-profit foundation "to collaborate, educate, and advocate for a more meaningful, sustainable tourism industry - protecting the planet and spreading the narrative around sustainable travel to our peers and the public." [Link:]

Mass tourism built its infamous offspring: Overtourism.

In other words, overcrowded sites by tourism often result in conflicts with the local population and have dire consequences for the environment.

Mont Saint Michel in Northern France, a UNESCO site since 1979, welcomes three million visitors every year, including one million in the summer. On August 18, 2022, the Mont, which has a total area of less than four square kilometers (1.5 square miles), saw a peak in attendance with more than 36,000 visitors in one day, the equivalent of the population of the city of Beja in Portugal.

Drone view of the granite rock of Mont Saint-Michel, originally called Mont Tombe. In 708, the archangel Michael appeared in a dream to Saint Aubert, bishop of Avranches, and asked him to build a sanctuary in his name. In 966, a community of Benedictines settled and built their first church. On July 7th this year, 35,000 commercial flights were recorded in Europe. In Amsterdam and Barcelona, residents are leaving their overcrowded city due to noise pollution. In Dubrovnik, signs prohibit visitors from rolling their suitcases on areas made of cobblestones.

The local council of Rome wants to put an end to low-cost tourism and focus on more selective tourism for a change. Since the market has changed, you can now find palazzi with the capacity of 100 rooms in central Rome, which previously were either a bank or a civil service building, says Francesca Tozzi, general manager of the stunning Six-Senses Hotel. Ten of these types of palazzi have been converted into luxury hotels. One of them was acquired by Microsoft and replaces an IKEA store. [Source: arte-tv/en].

View of Rome from the spa of the converted palazzo now hotel, the Six-Senses Hotel.

The Mediterranean Sea is the second most popular cruise ship destination after the Caribbean. In Venice, cruise ships are no longer allowed in the lagoon, but they have returned since Covid-19 when they had left. Now, they are seen as a burden to the city, cluttering the main sites without spending money since cruisers eat packed lunches. The city has discussed charging visitors an entrance fee, but this has not been implemented yet.

If cruise ships are no longer allowed in the lagoon, the number of tourists at a given time, remains a threat for the fragile city of Venice.

A third of the world's population visits the Mediterranean regions, causing a devastating impact on overstretched cities, which suffer from pollution and house price extortion. Moreover, the number of tourists is increasing everywhere. So, how can tourist destinations cope with these overwhelming numbers?

The buzzword 'demarketing' defines what tourists can no longer do in a city or natural site, and it is on everyone's lips. For example, a stag night in Amsterdam can result in a €150 fine, with fingerprints taken for criminal records if things get messy. Meanwhile, in 2023, a new hotel will open in Portugal every five days, according to data compiled by Cushman & Wakefield for CNN Portugal. It is estimated that 75 units will open, totaling 5,964 new rooms. These numbers exceed the average of the last few years. In 2023, there will be 12 more openings than in 2019 when 63 hotel units were inaugurated. [Source:]

Luckily, cycling, hiking, and ecotourism might contribute to dispersing visitors along rural lands in the high season. But that might as well be wishful thinking...

Here are a five guidelines for the responsible traveler:

Visit Portugal during off-peak seasons. The country has so much to offer all year round. Support the local community with consideration, kindness, time and money. Sustain the local guides, and explore with them the regions beyond cliché hotspots. Be eco-friendly at all times. Leave nothing behind if you travel off the beaten track. Travel with ethical tour companies.

So, how many sites have you found? Here are the seventeen UNESCO world heritage sites in Portugal. Visit these marvellous witnesses of our collective history, with delight and consideration.

The Jerónimos Monastery or Hieronymites Monastery is a former monastery of the Order of Saint Jerome near the Tagus river in the parish of Belém, in Lisbon.

Urban spaces:

– Historic Centre of Oporto, Luiz I Bridge, and Monastery of Serra do Pilar

– Historic Centre of Guimarães

– Historic Centre of Évora

– Garrison Border Town of Elvas and its Fortifications

– Central Zone of the Town of Angra do Heroismo in the Azores

– Royal Building of Mafra

– Palace, Basilica, Convent, Cerco Garden, and Hunting Park (Tapada)

– University of Coimbra – Alta and Sofia

– Monastery of Batalha – Monastery of the Hieronymites with the Tower of Belém in Lisbon

– Convent of Christ in Tomar

– Sanctuary of Bom Jesus do Monte in Braga

– Bom Jesus do Monte in Braga

The Historic Centre of Évora. After the destruction of Lisbon in the 1755 earthquake, Évora remains the best example of a city in the golden age of Portugal. Its Roman walls and remains date from 5,000 years.

Monastery of Batalha [left]. Sanctuary of Bom Jesus do Monte in Braga [right].

Natural landscapes:

– Alto Douro Wine Region [Vineyards]

– Landscape of the Pico Island Vineyard Culture in the Azores [Vineyards]

– Laurisilva Forest of Madeira

– Archaeological Park of the Côa Valley [shared with Spain]

Archaeological Park of the Côa Valley and its museum. A natural UNESCO heritage site shared with Spain and hosting major Paleolithic carved rock art.

IMPORTANT NOTE Between July 28th and August 6th, the World Youth Days will take place in Lisbon with the Pope’s visit between the 2nd and 6th of August. Please be aware that over 1.5 million visitors will be attempting the capital city. We suggest avoiding these dates all together if traveling to Portugal. If you are in Lisbon, seeking breathing spaces, check out these parks.

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If you wish to travel short-term or invest in Portugal, reach out with your questions and queries

Mojo is a Boutique Real Estate guiding and assisting investors and buyers in Portugal. We scout and cherry pick the best possible property within your brief and budget. We manage and coordinate the purchase process with expertise in renovations. And groom your property for short and long-term rental, striving optimal yields for our investors. Call and text via whatsapp: +351.962.621259

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