Why Portuguese coastal municipalities should tax camper vans

The Southwest of Portugal has been my autumn travel destination for years. A picturesque coast, fantastic surf breaks, good infrastructure and a perfect climate 🔆

This year I combined it with remote work:

  • Rented an Airbnb apartment in Carrapateira village for a month in October/November
  • Brought my 24” LCD display from Amsterdam
  • Tried to balance working with surfing

There was a lot of availability on Airbnb when I made the booking (one week before) and I heard that the same problem was happening with hostels, surf camps and hotels. They don't have customers 😞

I was feeling sorry for them but also a little excited at the prospect of empty surf spots at the same time. Well, I was wrong. The whole coast was completely packed with camper vans.

This location has always been popular among surfers travelling with their campers to the South of Portugal to chase perfect waves.

But this year the number of campers was much higher. Some popular surf spots like Zavial or Arrifana had more people there than during the summer season.

“camper vans” on Google Trends over the last 5 years, the trend is clear

But at the same time, the local businesses struggled. I understand that you don't need to book a hostel when you have a camper van. But I was surprised that local restaurants and cafés were just as empty.

Camper vans (95% foreign plates) have always been tolerated by the local authorities even if it’s not legal stay overnight on the beach. But it's no surprise that the current situation has escalated to the point that police have started to fine the campers.

Amado beach near Carrapateira

I saw dozens of campers near Carrapateira, village where I stayed, hiding on the dirt roads, parked in a way where they weren’t visible from the main road. This is not OK.

There were already problems during the summer season, but everyone expected a decline during the off season. Instead, something else happened in November. Locals began to take the initiative to raid the the camper vans, and that’s when things got really bad.

The title of this article is misleading. I heard from a local friend that, locals didn't raid the camper vans. They approached the campers, informing them about the rules and asking them to leave the beaches. All actions happen with zero violence and campers left the area.

However, this type of news are not good for Portuguese tourism.

I love camper vans (I used to have one) but the current situation is not sustainable. Over the coming months, there is sure to be more camper vans and local municipalities should embrace this opportunity and make everyone happy. Also, one thing is to spend a few weeks, other is to relocate for several months.

It’s a tricky situation because I empathize with all parties involved. 

Let’s brainstorm some solutions:

Step 1: Monitor the camper vans 🔍

First, the municipalities should know exactly how many camper vans are in the area and where they are parking. I played with some satellite data. An AI model can be built to recognize the camper vans on the satellite imagery and count them automatically.  

Step 2: Create a taxation policy and rules ✍️

Tourists should contribute to the local economy. When you rent an Airbnb or book a hotel in Portugal, you pay a tourist tax per person per night. Local authorities can independently decide for seasonal rates or add a maximum limit on number of nights.

Why shouldn’t camper vans pay a tourist tax as well?

Especially because parking is free almost everywhere here. The tax should be per camper van - this will remove a lot of friction in the controlling process.

Step 3: Build an automated system to pay a "van tax" 💳

This system should be simple and automated. A mobile website where a camper van driver adds the plate number, dates and pays online. In advance.

Local van rental companies should charge this tourist van tax automatically during the bookings process, so as not to leave it to the renter to decide.

Step 4: Controlling process 👮

The police should control the camper vans and if they park near the beach and their plate is not in the system (they didn't pay), they should receive a fine. These fines should be significant enough that people won't even think about not paying the tourist tax.

Municipalities should also simplify the legislation process of building commercial campsites as one part of this problem is a lack of existing infrastructure. With the income from tourist tax, the municipality could also invest in mobile toilets and install them near popular beach parking lots. A lack of these toilets is one of the reasons locals are so angry about this issue.

If you work for the municipality and want help with the technical part (satellite data, etc.), I might have some more ideas and I'd be happy to chat with you about it. Let’s connect!

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👋 Hey, I'm Peter and  I'm building a portfolio of niche hospitality businesses.

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