João Fernandes, president of the Algarve Tourism Board

Please postpone, don’t cancel your trip

If circumstances were any different, the Algarve Tourism Board (RTA) would be celebrating its 50th anniversary this year. But in the midst of a global pandemic and the tourism sector facing unprecedented uncertainty, the focus is on helping small- and medium-sized companies learn more about the government’s support measures and prepare the Algarve for the revival of its tourism sector.

João Fernandes, president of the RTA and the Algarve Tourism Association (ATA), spoke to our sister publication Barlavento about the credit options for companies affected by the coronavirus outbreak.

“There is a €60 million credit line that does not have the banking sector as an intermediary, making it the swiftest in terms of responding to companies. It is aimed at the treasury and operating funds of micro companies,” Fernandes told the paper.

He explained that only companies with up to 10 employees and up to €2 million in annual business volume can apply for support via this credit line, which provides an interest-free support package of up to €20,000 per company. It can be paid back in three years and has a one-year grace period, the tourism boss said.

It is aimed at a vast group of activities including hotels and the accommodation sector, rent-a-cars, travel agencies, event organisers, entertainers, theme parks and “many others operating in the tourism sector”.

According to Fernandes, regional tourism authorities have been in constant contact with Secretary of State for Tourism, Rita Marques, to inform her of how “especially vulnerable” the Algarve is, as it depends on this sector and also faces the added challenge of seasonality.

“This isn’t a problem that is exclusive to the Algarve, but our businesses are mostly small or micro companies. That is why it is essential to have simple, easy and facilitating tools,” he said.
The money behind this particular credit line comes directly from Turismo de Portugal, the national tourism board, which allowed it to tailor the application process to the needs of the sector.

Although companies still need to prove that they have all their fiscal and Social Security payments up to date, some of the requirements to access the credit line will be based on statements by the companies seeking support.

“This is especially important because one of the difficulties that companies are facing is proving that they have been affected negatively by Covid-19. We are not going to wait around. The statements will be checked later on, but we will not be affecting the response deadline,” said the RTA boss.

Turismo de Portugal says all applications will be analysed in no more than five working days.

However, the €60 million credit line does not include any specific sum for the Algarve, no matter how particularly fragile the region is due to its dependency on the tourism sector.

Fernandes said that there is also a €30 million credit line exclusively for the Algarve that was launched in 2018 and which aims to improve the quality of the region’s tourism sector.

He added that he believes measures will be “progressively adjusted” and that new ones will be implemented in a “learning process that we are already forced to take part in”.

But is this all enough to help the region’s businesses survive these tough times?

“We are talking about something that is completely uncertain. We do not know how long the impact of this pandemic will last,” said the tourism chief, adding that the credit lines that have been announced are the best that can be done at the moment.

“This doesn’t mean that the deadlines and sums won’t be extended. But for now, I think they are adequate and effective for micro companies. Obviously, it is not enough, but the country does not have unlimited resources.

“Other countries have announced substantially larger packages, but our size and financial condition is different. But, of course, I encourage companies to apply for this credit line and the others already announced by the government for restaurants and similar businesses, travel agencies, entertainment companies and event organisers and hotels and accommodation establishments,” said Fernandes, adding that they are “cumulative” – in other words, companies can benefit from more than one at the same time.

Fernandes also spoke of the new campaign launched by RTA and ATA that aims to promote and clarify the measures announced by the government (click here). With four people dedicated to this new support service for entrepreneurs, the tourism board is also helping business owners find answers from other institutions such as Social Security, namely the recently announced lay-off scheme.

“We are also gathering information about the temporary accommodation that is being offered to health professionals,” said the tourism boss, adding that the number of hotels and small hostels coming forward is growing every day.

“They contact RTA to inform us of their availability, how many rooms they have and the services and conditions they provide voluntarily. It is obviously a very important gesture,” he said.

Faro Council has been playing an important role in this regard, helping find accommodation for health professionals at Faro Hospital. In Portimão, the council has been investing in the accommodation facilities already available at Portimão Hospital.

“There are also two hotels in Portimão which have offered up their rooms – Júpiter and Oriental. But there are other examples of this kind of solidarity. For example, Visacar is providing ARS Algarve with cars to provide home care (click here). Hotel Quinta do Lago is providing towels to the centres dedicated to caring for suspected cases, and Hotel Afonso II is providing accommodation to medical staff to prevent any potential infection of their family members, among many other small and big contributions,” said Fernandes.

“We are made to welcome people”
Meanwhile, tourism authorities in the Algarve are already busy preparing for when the region will be ready to welcome tourists again.

“We have already launched a campaign telling people not to cancel their trip, but to postpone it. It is aimed at the Portuguese, Spanish and international markets and is again a joint initiative involving RTA and ATA,” he said.

For example, the region is already looking at how the Covid-19 outbreak could change the whole landscape of tourism.

As João Fernandes explained, mass tourism destinations and crowds could be labelled as “risky scenarios” whilst calmer destinations offering nature tourism options or golf, niches that involve smaller groups, could become the new preference moving forward.

If this becomes the case, Portugal, and the Algarve in particular, could have a competitive advantage over their rivals and rebuild their tourism sector more quickly.

These are still early days, however, and the focus is on looking at the sector as a whole and researching the best options for the future.

For example, everyone knows how important the British market is to Algarve tourism, but the region may be forced to focus its attention on other markets due to the pandemic.

“Let’s imagine that, according to the prediction by consulting company McKinsey, we would start welcoming holidaymakers in June. If our main market is especially affected (by the outbreak) at the time, we may be forced to completely change our focus,” João Fernandes explained.

While the coronavirus has caused a lot of heartache around the world and in Portugal, of course, “some good has come from this situation” as the Algarve has been proving that it is ‘in its blood’ to welcome people.

“There are rival destinations that during this catastrophe have been kicking guests out onto the street. Our attitude is completely different. We are proving, just as we did during the collapse of Thomas Cook, that we are made to welcome people,” the regional tourism chief told Barlavento.

Google: Portugal not linked to coronavirus
The coronavirus outbreak has kept tourism authorities busy in the Algarve, but it has also eliminated the need for the region to promote itself, at least for the time being.

“What we are doing is studying markets and distribution channels in light of the pandemic, but also studying possible new tendencies,” he said.

Just last week, Fernandes saw the Google Travel Breakfast report, which analyses tourism markets and looks at how their image has been affected by the pandemic.

The good news? Portugal is not being as associated to the pandemic as other countries.

“In terms of online searches related to coronavirus, we are in 38th place, as opposed to the usual searches by those seeking to visit us, in which we are in the top 20,” he said.

“For now, according to Google’s insight, we are not associated to the difficulties caused by Covid-19 as much as our rivals. That is very important from a brand standpoint.”

Algarve Race Resort could become “backup facility” for patients
Apart from the several hotels that are offering free accommodation to health professionals during the pandemic, RTA is also contacting hotels to determine which are available to become “backup facilities” dedicated to providing lodging to patients infected with the coronavirus.

The idea is being developed with the help of the Algarve Biomedical Center (ABC) and the Algarve Health Administration (ARS Algarve).

One of the hotels being pitched for the plan is the Algarve Race Resort, near the Algarve International Racetrack in the countryside of Portimão.

“This will only be necessary if there is a significant worsening of the national health service’s capacity to treat infected patients,” said Fernandes, adding that the plan would be to provide accommodation for infected tourists at these hotels, where they would be “actively monitored” with daily phone calls that would allow doctors to follow the evolution of their symptoms and decide whether they need hospital assistance.

ASAE leads way in work safety
During the first phase of prevention and control of the Covid-19 pandemic, “we were very focused on helping implement contingency plans in companies”, said João Fernandes.

“Sometimes we neglect how important it is that our companies have experience in hygiene and safety plans.

For example, when we visit other countries, we complain about ASAE (national health and food safety agency) because their demanding rules do not exist abroad.

“But the truth is that today we are better prepared to react in exceptional cases,” he added.

“It is much easier to teach new procedures to someone who is already used to following certain health and hygiene rules,” said the tourism chief, adding that it was especially important for RTA to work with regional health authority ARS Algarve in order to pass along a “more technically prepared message” to companies.

Original article written by Bruno Filipe Pires for Barlavento newspaper.