The entrance to Café A Brasileira, one of the historic businesses on Lisbon's list. Ewan Munro/Flickr

Can a city experiencing a tourism boom avoid turning into a place geared mainly for visitors?

The city of Lisbon is stepping in to protect one of its most distinctive assets: its historical shops. As part of a project initiated last year, the city has just named 63 retail establishments as deserving special recognition. To start, this means the stores can apply for special restoration funds, up to a maximum of €25,000 each.

The stores themselves, which include a tobacconist, a glove shop, a café, a pharmacy and a florist, have much in common. They are all businesses with relatively low cash flows. They are all also distinguished by particularly beautiful interiors, and many of them sell unusual or specialty goods or services. The city plans to extend the list to 100 or more by the fall.

Following a model already due to be introduced in Barcelona, the businesses may also get special protection from change of use. For lovers of Lisbon’s existing historic character, the plan comes in the nick of time, even if it doesn’t as yet actually prevent any of the stores from closing. In the past few years, pressure on inner Lisbon has become so intense that it has risked wiping out much of the charm that makes it so attractive in the first place.

Lisbon’s attractions, you see, aren’t quite in the heavyweight league you find in some European capitals. There’s no equivalent to the Coliseum, or Notre Dame. Instead what the city has long had in abundance is a glut of un-studied charm, or beauty on a small, intimate scale. Think tile-clad bars filled with older locals and wooden boneshaker streetcars. To be sure, most of the city has its feet firmly in the 21st century, but you can also still find shops selling lengths of salt cod stored, like bolts of fine silk, in wooden drawers. Street markets sell sardines from crates, their oily skins catching the sunlight like mercury. Aesthetically, it’s irresistible.

Historic liquor store Ginjinha Sem Rival, also on Lisbon’s new list of protected businesses. (Juan Lupión/Flickr)

Sure enough, visitors have not resisted. Overnight stays in Lisbon rose 11.8 percent in the first half of 2015 alone. Over the course of the full year, tourists spent an estimated €1.62 billion in the city, a greatly welcome source of revenue in a country whose economy has never fully recovered from the 2008 financial crisis.

That lopsided flood of cash creates problems nonetheless—specifically what’s been described as a “tourist avalanche.” Landlords can make far more money by renting or selling to hoteliers and tourist shops than to long-standing tenants. Small businesses, even those with a solid customer base, can get flushed out easily. So many have disappeared in the Baixa area—an elegant 18th century grid flanked by steep hills in the city’s heart—the fear is it could soon run out of trade entirely. An area that was once robust in its charm is now having its marrow sucked out by over-exploitation. As one local told magazine O Corvo:

"I have nothing against tourists, but within a few years, they will come here and what they see will be mainly hotels and shops made for tourists. There will not be anything authentic left. "

A classic, locally disliked example of this change was the fate of Tram Line 24.  After disappearing from use in the 1990s, it returned to service last year. This time, however, it was as a service aimed at tourists, costing €6 a ticket and taking in hilltop viewpoints. It seemed to signal the beginning of the end for Lisbon’s streetcars’ purpose as a public utility first and a photo opportunity second.

This is the context into which the new shop protections must squeeze. When it comes to tourism, they will at least stop Lisbon landlords from wringing the golden goose’s neck in the false hope of making it lay more eggs. At the same time, in focusing on local businesses with special aesthetic appeal, the protections won’t necessarily lessen the sense that inner Lisbon is becoming primarily a stage set for visitors.

Even cities that have pioneered similar efforts have not been entirely successful. Barcelona may be moving to protect historic shops, but it has also just installed plaques in its sidewalks commemorating traditional business that have already gone under. Like many European cities these days, Lisbon is trying to manage a delicate balance: encouraging visitors while simultaneously protecting local character. They’re not there yet, but at least the city is feeling its way towards possible solutions.

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