Bom Jesus, Braga - Angela Compagnone via Unsplash

Braga’s pilgrimage to be a sustainable destination

Mounting the 600 steps of the Bom Jesus do Monte, a sacred site in Braga, the pilgrim weaves from left to right, pausing to look back at the scene behind, gazing up at the goal to which she must progress. Braga has long been known as a site of religious tourism. Now, the city’s journey to inspire diverse and sustainable tourism looks much like the pilgrim’s progress, gaining ground on the vertical and horizontal panes while taking in the current landscape and future ambitions.

“We don’t yet have mass tourism,” says António Barroso, Political Advisor to the Mayor of Braga, “but numbers are increasing very rapidly.” This, he feels, is the perfect moment to get ahead of the current and ensure that as tourism grows, it becomes more environmentally, socially and economically sustainable.

A moment to capture

At its peak, tourism has already brought the city to full capacity. “Last August was crazy,” confesses Luís Ferreira, Braga’s Senior Tourism Technician, “I work in the tourist office, and I can honestly say I had to send people to other cities because we were overbooked.”

Last August was crazy
— Luís Ferreira

To capture this moment to guide tourism towards sustainability, rather than letting it escalate and then having to fight the tide, the city has positioned itself as a facilitator that brings all engaged parties around the table. “To create our action plan for sustainable tourism, be created a local group with universities, hotels, restaurants, cafés, tour operators, transportation… everyone who is involved in the tourist industry,” Barroso says.

Creating such a group has allowed the city to draw on local expertise, and to improve the awareness of the need for sustainable practices among these actors. It also provides a great opportunity for them to network with each other and come up with new ideas and ways to cooperate. “Many of them work in tourism but don’t have the opportunity to engage with each other,” says Barroso, “but with this network they talk with each other and improve their businesses.”

With this network they talk with each other and improve their businesses
— António Barroso

Tax talk

A measure suggested by the group was adding more and clearer signposting for tourists, something that the city is now following up on. However, more contentious matters also hit the table. For example, the new tourist tax. The attitude of some local businesses owners to the proposed tax was less than enthusiastic.

Despite the scepticism, the city made a convincing case: The tax would let them get a clearer picture of how many tourists were staying there and what kinds of places they were staying. This data would be essential for designing better tourism policies. “We also made the case that because the municipality spends a lot on tourism, we need a tax to fuel that spending, and that tourism has negative externalities, like pollution, that there are costs for counteracting,” Ferreira recalls.

The municipality spends a lot on tourism
— Luís Ferreira

After dialogue, they reached a solution with the tax: it will only be applied in the peak season, form March to October.

Beyond religion

Braga is known as a destination for religious tourism. Two major concerns in its approach to sustainable tourism are going beyond this image by making people aware of other local attractions, and making sure that all the local people can reap the dividends of tourism. From its food to its nature, Braga has plenty to offer. Making people aware of all the available attractions will help to disperse tourists, reducing the likelihood of overtourism, and distributing the economic gains more widely.

Woman in Braga photo by Rui Silva sj via Unsplash

Among the city’s other goals are increasing the length of tourists’ stays, maintaining the genuineness and traditions of the city, and engaging residents more deeply.

A tourist at home

One of the ways that the city has worked towards this last goal was by launching an invitation to residents to become a tourist in their own city. “We provided them with a guided tour of Braga, along with information about sustainability,” Ferreira explains, “that let us cocreate the tourist experience with them, by gathering their ideas after the tour, and it also helped us raise awareness of the value of tourism, and its potential as a resource for residents.”

An important part of this exercise was the inclusion of people with disabilities, who were able to provide insights on accessibility and share their unique perspectives.

The city is also looking at digitalisation as a way to increase the sustainability of tourism and the quality of tourist experiences. From an app that guides people around and opens up unexpected possibilities, to proposed technology for measuring tourist demographics through phone wifi signals, Braga is feeding into the national government’s post-covid Recovery and Resilience Plan.

We have many undiscovered places
— António Barroso

The route hasn’t always been an easy one, but developing sustainable tourism is a pilgrimage that Braga has been treading since it integrated the Sustainable Development Goals into its local planning in 2015. Barroso is convinced that the city’s potential is far from exhausted: “We have many undiscovered places, from river beaches to little restaurants, Braga is bursting with hidden treasures.”

Anthony Colclough Eurocities Writer