Portugal is now outpacing Spain as Europe's fastest-growing tourism market. But the small nation is struggling to meet the industry's steep demands.
On Thursday, a bus crash in the Madeiran town of Canico that killed at least 29 people, all of them German, threw the infrastructure issues brought on by over-tourism into stark relief.
Madeira faces a huge challenge transporting the 1.4 million tourists (five times its own population) who visit every year.
"The tourism sector is one of the main engines of Madeira's economy," says a recent EU report focused on creating better mobility on the autonomous group of Portuguese islands.
Tourism accounts for about 20% of Madeira's GDP, and the vast majority of those tourists are German and British.
According to the World Travel & Tourism Council (WTTC), Portugal as whole is Europe's fastest-growing tourist destination, as more than a decade of campaigns from local and national tourism boards, promotions from business like TAP airlines, and the declining costs of travel begin to coalesce.
Skyrocketing tourism takes toll
Tourism is one of the main drivers of economic recovery in Portugal, a country that needed a massive bailout from its fellow EU members during the financial crisis. But the rewards of a more robust market have not been evenly distributed, and much of the profit does not stay in the country.
In 2010, Portugal welcomed 6.8 million foreign visitors. By 2016 that number had skyrocketed to 18.2 million, an increase of 168 percent in just six years.
The WTTC forecasts at least 20 million people will travel to Portugal from abroad in 2019. Tourism has become such a key industry for Portugal that they are planning to open special travel lanes for Britons landing on its shores post-Brexit, to ensure UK travellers aren't put off by new restrictions as non-EU residents.
But the residents of Portugal's top destinations in Lisbon, Porto, Algarve, and Madeira have been increasingly feeling the push of the throngs of tourists that now make some of their streets nearly impassable. Portuguese cities and towns now regularly find themselves on travel writers' lists of places that have been "ruined" by over-tourism as locals face housing crises created by foreign investors turning apartment buildings into tourist accommodations.
A 2018 article in the New York Times found that tourists now outnumber locals in Lisbon by a ratio of more than eight to one. Fifty new hotels opened in the city in 2015 alone, and 30 were added in 2018. New businesses were almost entirely focused on entertaining tourists, rather than providing services to locals.
"Some residents complain a dual economy has emerged, split between those who deal in property and tourism — and the rest. They also decry the "Disneyfication" of Lisbon, which they see in new shops," said the Times.
Not enough workers to meet demand
In Madeira, there are simply not enough locals to meet the demand of the tourism market. An October 2018 report by the European Commission found that employers in the region had difficulty recruiting skilled hospitality workers, as well as safety and security staff.
The tourism industry news portal Skift has summed up Portugal's over-tourism woes thus: "[tourism] can add unnecessary 'wear and tear' on destinations, negatively impacting the availability of resources, local businesses, and the environment, not to mention residents' lives."