João Fernandes Photo: VASCO CÉLIO/STILLS

Algarve tourism back on track

Many hotels nearly full for Easter, says tourism boss João Fernandes

The Algarve tourism sector is recovering faster than expected from the effects of the Covid-19 pandemic, with bookings for this Easter and summer reaching levels that were only expected in 2023.

So said Algarve tourism chief João Fernandes, who has described the good news as a “clear sign that the Algarve has maintained its reputation of a top-quality destination and that, as soon as the opportunity arose, holidaymakers returned”.

Easter exceeded all possible expectations.

“Many hotels are expecting 90% occupancy levels between this Thursday and Sunday, some even higher, and demand for golf is the best it’s been,” said Fernandes, who heads both the Algarve Tourism Board (RTA), responsible for promoting the Algarve within Portugal, and the Algarve Tourism Association (ATA), which promotes the region abroad.

“Air links are being resumed and between 15,000 and 18,000 passengers are arriving per day (at Faro Airport), which is a sign that the number of flights is increasing and the passenger load factor (a metric that measures how much of a flight’s passenger carrying capacity is used) is increasing significantly. This is important to the sustainability of routes and help airlines strengthen and maintain these routes,” he added.

The beautiful weather that the Algarve is expecting for this Easter is a bonus, with clear skies and above 20ºC temperatures forecast.

Praia da Rocha beach
Praia da Rocha beach
Photo: Inês Lopes/Open Media

In fact, the region is expecting hotels to remain busy even after Easter as the MotoGP of Portugal will take place next weekend at the Algarve International Racetrack in Portimão, which will also coincide with a long weekend due to Portugal’s national holiday on April 25 celebrating the Carnation Revolution.

The Portuguese market continues to account for most hotel bookings in the Algarve – much like it did during the pandemic years.

As Fernandes explained, Portuguese tourists who choose the Algarve usually opt for shorter holidays to enjoy the warmer weather, visit the beach and take part in outdoor activities.

Thanks to these positive signs, tourism and hotel officials are feeling hopeful that the Algarve can finally leave the “past two difficult years” well behind.

“The signs are encouraging for three reasons: the numbers for Easter are approaching those of 2019, a record year; the prices that are being charged allow businesses to remain viable; and the kind of bookings that are being made are showing more confidence in the region. During the pandemic, bookings were flexible and allowed for cancellations. Now we are receiving many pre-paid bookings, and more and more bookings for the post-Easter season,” Fernandes explained.

The British market continues to play a major role in the Algarve, which has not seen a decrease in visitors since Brexit.

“What we have seen is that, whenever there is an opportunity, the British return to the Algarve. Tomorrow (Wednesday), there will be 87 flights arriving at Faro and over 40% will be from the UK. It is a clear sign that the British market has not retracted and is not expected to in future,” he said before tackling the ‘elephant in the room’, which is threatening not just the Algarve’s tourism sector but the global economy: the war in Ukraine.

“We don’t know what this war can lead to. From an economic point of view, it could lead to a reduction in consumption from our markets. It could also lead tourists from countries near Russia to not want to leave their families. We are at the furthest point from Russia in Europe, which increases confidence, and we are welcoming many people, but we have to be aware of the current reality,” said the tourism chief, who also said inflation has already affected the sector when it comes to areas like energy.

Sustainability and year-round tourism

Known mostly for being a summer tourism destination, the Algarve has invested heavily in recent years to promote itself as a region that has more to offer than just its world-famous sunshine and beaches.

The strategy has worked and has already seen “concrete results”, according to the tourism boss.

Photo: Bruno Filipe Pires/Open Media

“We reduced seasonality by 3.3% in just three years before the pandemic, which is a very relevant figure, considering it was achieved not through a reduction of visitors in summer but due to increased numbers outside of summer. In the two months of 2020 before the pandemic, the hotel sector was seeing a growth of 15.3% in guests,” he said.

“It is clear that giving tourists new reasons to visit (the Algarve) outside the high season provides more balance to the economy and helps create fewer precarious jobs and pay better salaries,” the tourism chief added.

Fernandes said the Algarve began exploring other opportunities and saw a 73% increase among markets outside of the usual main markets between 2014 and 2019.

“We sought markets like Canada, a country whose tourists usually look to the Algarve as a winter destination,” said João Fernandes, who explained that the goal is to not be reliant on just one or a few countries.

“We do not want to put all our eggs in one basket,” he added.

Lessons learned

One of the main lessons learned during the pandemic was that digitalisation and sustainability have consolidated their place in the Algarve’s tourism scene.

“These are not new concepts, but they became more prominent during a phase when we all had to get used to technologies. Everything from bookings to check-ins and meetings were carried out online,” he said.

Even before the pandemic, the Algarve was committed to attracting digital nomads to the region. The pandemic only accelerated the process.

Photo: Inês Lopes/Open Media

“The possibility of working from Portugal became even more obvious. We carried out several campaigns during the Covid-19 pandemic to promote remote working, namely in the UK. Portugal is the only country with the same time zone as the UK, which is important when it comes to working schedules,” said Fernandes, adding that tourism authorities focused on promoting the idea of combining “work and leisure”.

“Several hotels started thinking about this and catering to guests who come here for work and leisure. We saw many of them improve their Wi-Fi, create co-working areas and make common areas more user-friendly,” he said.

Challenges ahead

The Algarve tourism sector’s main challenge continues to be a lack of human resources. As João Fernandes explained, it is a “structural issue” which requires more than a ‘quick fix’ to solve.

One challenge is that youngsters entering the job market are “more and more qualified” and are seeking higher-ranking positions.

The Algarve is also struggling to recruit workers from other regions like the Alentejo and North because tourism in those regions has developed in recent years, meaning they are able to retain their local workforce.

While the Algarve “has always had foreigners working in the tourism sector,” another issue is the lack of affordable housing, which makes it harder to attract workers to the region.

Said Fernandes, local councils are developing projects to create more housing at “controlled costs” which will help tackle the issue, but it won’t be enough, he added. New legislation is also needed to create a regime for temporary and dignified lodging.

Authorities are also developing international cooperation networks to bring more foreign workers to the region.

“At the BTL tourism fair in Lisbon, I had a meeting with the Cape Verdean Institute of Tourism, which is developing partnerships to facilitate the mobility of workers from Portuguese-speaking countries,” said Fernandes, adding that the IEFP (national employment and training institute) also has an agreement with India.

Ukrainian refugees need comfort before jobs

While the Algarve tourism sector is more than open to offering jobs to Ukrainian refugees (some of whom have already started new jobs), João Fernandes is well-aware that most require time to recover from the trauma of war and get used to life in a new country.

“The number of people who have already started working is very low because they arrive very scared and debilitated. They need comfort, and many of them arrive with children who are their main priority first. Only after can they think about their full integration. Firstly, we have to support these people who are suffering,” concluded João Fernandes.

By Michael Bruxo
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