19.12.2014 | Von:
Karen O'Reilly

Outcomes of Lifestyle Migration

The term lifestyle migration is used to describe the movement of relatively affluent people to places that offer them the possibility of self-realization or a better quality of life. Such migrations became a modern mass phenomenon in the 1990s with the migration of many British - and later other Europeans - to Spain's coastal areas.

Touristen am Strand bei Marbella, Spanien.Tourists on a beach near Marbella, Spain. (© picture alliance/Photoshot)

Impact of Residential Tourism in Spain

The impacts of lifestyle migration have not yet been well documented but a few studies begin to shed light on this. I will start with Spain. Numbers are very difficult to obtain because many do not register or do not live there all year round, but it is estimated that even now, since the 2008 economic crisis, there are over two million North Europeans living in Spain . Spain was very successful in terms of development for mass tourism. It then went on to pioneer "residential tourism", allowing construction of real estate to spread, first to the coasts and islands and then further and further inland. The whole purpose of residential tourism is to attract second home owners to a town as a way of attracting investment. However, the concept takes no account of the fact that many of those who come are lifestyle migrants from diverse sending countries, who settle permanently. Residential tourism property is developed with tourism property, and is located in enclaves with very localized repercussions in terms of population change, and rising living and real estate costs. Whole new towns have cropped up in many areas, bringing vast social and economic changes. Some areas, such as the region of Murcia, have been profoundly affected, with great golf developments swamping tiny, ancient rural towns. Economies in these areas are now based on lifestyle migration (or residential tourism), tourism, construction, and real estate rather than on agriculture and manual work. Since the financial crisis of 2008, these areas are devastated, with collapse of the economy, and massive job losses, while many of the residential tourism properties are left empty or half empty for much of the year. Wealthier lifestyle migrants have been able to stay, poorer ones have been unable to leave, but many have returned to their countries of origin, often leaving empty properties behind.

Spanish academics have long been battling to get their voices heard to convince their government to stem the flow of development (although the financial crisis has perhaps negated the need for this critical voice). Tomas Mazon and Antonio Aledo Tur (2005) have been especially critical of the effects of residential tourism, which they see as massive urbanization, abandoned agriculture, and the emergence of an economic mono culture of real estate, of poor quality housing built quickly for maximum profit. They argue that the coasts are now covered in concrete, suffering creaking infrastructure, as the phenomenon spreads further inland consuming land, nature and a way of life. Rising living costs and massively overpriced real estate squeezed out the local communities whereas the sudden downturn brought huge losses for those who had migrated to these areas. Mantecón and Huete (2008) have drawn attention to the fact that these impacts of uncontrolled development, especially overcrowding, are actually counter to the tranquility, and "authenticity" that lifestyle migrants seek, and serve instead to drive them from an area.

Consequences Elsewhere

Impacts have also been noted elsewhere. In Goa, India, locals built properties to rent to visiting westerners as part of the trance music tourism scene (which became a form of lifestyle migration), but the Goan government then decided to restrict the party scene and try to attract more wealthy residential tourists. This has not really worked and now there are many locals left with empty properties and restaurants, while the drugs scene they wanted to restrict still has a hold. Meanwhile, big companies are making money in the package tourism and hotel business instead. As a result of lifestyle migration, Bocas del Toro in Panama has seen a huge rise in the cost of living, massive house-price rises, and a loss of local industries combined with a rise in insecure tourism-related work. Impacts of the snowbird phenomenon and related lifestyle migration in Florida have also been profound, in terms of population increases, increased property prices, demand for public services, and cultural and social change.

Lifestyle Migrants as Reflexive Agents

Lifestyle migration is having many unintended consequences, then. However, research has often shown the lifestyle migrants themselves to be critical and reflexive agents aware of their position and privilege and keen to make some contribution to the communities of which they are now part. Many lifestyle migrants continue actively to shape their lives post-migration. In the face of sometimes contradictory experiences, they work hard in their communities to live their lives the way they expected them to be, by pulling together, providing for their own community’s needs and desires, and living out the cultural norms they expected to find. In research currently being undertaken in Thailand and Malaysia, we have found lifestyle migrants to be actively involved in the local communities, through being members of committees, engaging in voluntary activities, making local friends and building long-term relationships (including marriage). There is a strong community ethos in much of lifestyle migrants’ behavior; they often want to preserve the natural environment; and many get involved in local campaigns. Sometimes these actions have positive side-effects for the physical environment. In Brittany, for example, it is acknowledged that lifestyle migration has repopulated and restored rural areas, and generated local interest in such renovation projects. The same has been said in Portugal. As Mantecón and Huete (2008) suggest, if policies could be implemented that value the local natural and cultural environment, as the lifestyle migrants themselves appear to, then perhaps a more sustainable form of development could be pursued.

This text is part of the policy brief on lifestyle migration.

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