Tourism entities are facing the autumn with hope. Portugal’s slow-start to the summer season picked up massively in August – and September exceeded all expectations. With the UK’s easing of pandemic travel restrictions, Brits have added to a healthy influx of Europeans, ensuring reservations are “booming” right through to mid-November.
The start of the golfing season has been pivotal in the turnaround – as well as news that the Portugal Masters has been rescheduled to take place in Vilamoura in November.
In an uplifting interview with Expresso over the weekend, Luís Correia da Silva, president of the golfing industry’s national confederation (CNIG), agreed: “We are on the road to recovery. After these 18 months of disaster, we are starting to see the first positive signs and the beginning of a recovery on all courses in the Algarve.”
Business is still below levels enjoyed in 2019 – and the recovery isn’t being felt quite so markedly on courses in and around Lisbon – but the overall picture is definitely looking up.
As Expresso heard, roughly 50% of passengers arriving at Faro airport since the middle of September have been carrying golf bags – and hotels nearest the 40 regional courses are almost all fully booked.
João Fernandes, president of the Algarve’s Região de Turismo (RTA), told the paper: “Reservations data seems to be pointing to a clear recovery. We have good signs for October and November … we are hopeful that we can recover the level of demand we had in the low season (pre-pandemic) as quickly as possible.”
Elidérico Viegas, long-term president of Algarve hoteliers’ association AHETA, is also buoyant, stressing that the low-season influx involves Brits – recently ‘released’ from stringent quarantine measures – Germans, Dutch, Swiss and Finns – many of them keen to enjoy the region’s many golf courses.
“There is a lot of demand,” he told Expresso, admitting nonetheless that not all hotels are benefitting. A number still remain closed. And with the benefit of hindsight, he added: “Reservations for now are going well, but they may not all be taken up: reservations these days are different to what they were in the past; we are still living a bit on a knife edge…” All it would take is another backward lurch in the pandemic and tentative recoveries everywhere could suffer new reverses.
But for the time being, with fingers tightly crossed, the sector is optimistic.
“We will have a low season that is inferior (in terms of business) to what it was before the pandemic, but better than last year when we had practically no demand at all,” said the AHETA boss whose almost three-decade tenure has weathered countless crises.
Flights increase in and out of Faro Airport
A critical factor in this low-season recovery has been the routes in and out of Faro airport.
Golfers need to be able to get here – while João Fernandes stresses they are not only golfers from UK: “There has been an interesting level of demand also from French-speaking countries like France, Belgium, Luxembourg and Switzerland.”
None of it is up to 2019 levels, but it is certainly ‘getting there’.
“In July, August and September, planes were starting to arrive with a more sustainable number of passengers,” he explained. Thus, the uptick since the middle of last month has been “doubly important, as it is an opportunity (for airlines) to maintain routes at Faro airport”.
Two world-class events over same weekend
Other good reasons for maintaining flight connections to Faro are the two world-class events coming at the same time next month: Portugal Masters on November 4-7, which will be transmitted live by Sky Sports, and the MotoGP motorcycle championships (November 5-7) is expected to attract up to 67,000 spectators, and generate as much as €40 million for the local economy.
Revenue generated by Portugal Masters will be equally important. Luís Araújo, president of Turismo de Portugal, has dubbed the tournament “an important moment to showcase the international prestige of our country”.
“British vaccination certificates will be recognised by Portugal”
This has been billed by Expresso and other media outlets as another key reason behind the low-season tourism recovery.
From this week, the former British ‘traffic light’ system of countries (in which Portugal was listed as amber) has disappeared, and there is only a red list. This has reopened many destinations.
To travel here through the summer months, Brits had to support the costs of three PCR tests: one pre-departure, one pre-return flight home and the third two days after arrival in the UK. These rules applied to all travellers, even the fully vaccinated whose vaccination certificates were not at the time ‘recognised’ by the European Union.
“With the changes coming in on October 4, Brits will no longer be subject to tests before they embark, in Portugal or in the United Kingdom,” wrote Expresso.
“They will only have to do a test two days after their return to their home country, but this will cease to need to be a PCR test and become a rapid antigen test, according to Transport Minister Grant Shapps’ posts on Twitter”.
In other words, travel to Portugal should no longer require three tests – “just one, which is a significant reduction in terms of costs and bureaucracy for British tourists,” João Fernandes told Expresso.
The small print, however, carried a catch. There has to be reciprocity from the Portuguese government over dropping pre-departure tests from UK – and that appears not to have happened.
Thus, the mention of no requirement for tests pre-embarkation for Portugal has run into all kinds of issues: some travellers finding they do indeed have to show a negative test pre-boarding, others dispensed from having to do so.
The only advice can be ‘check with your airline’ before arriving at the airport.
Easter 2022: moment when Algarve expects “close to normal” business
This is the ‘cherry on the cake’ of Expresso’s upbeat article: pundits are pointing to Easter next year as being the moment tourism reaches levels “closer to a normal year” – and if all goes well, 2023 should be the season when the Algarve tourism, if not that for the rest of Portugal, is back to pre-pandemic levels of 2019.
Elidérico Viegas, however, is the expert who has ‘seen it all’ and retains a degree of caution. “We’re happy with the increase in demand but we need to be conscious of reality and not gild the lily,” he told the paper.
The Algarve this year suffered an 82% loss of British visitors when compared to figures for 2019, and there was a 70% fall in the number of passengers arriving at Faro airport between January and August.
In the meantime, the pandemic has seen to it that many tourism operators have gone bust. “60% of business used to be done by traditional operators, now that is just 15%,” he told Expresso. “The whole touristic machine is undergoing changes. There will have to be readjustments in terms of distribution channels (we will have new realities, such as digital platforms) and a lot of offer coming outside of the market.”
And one of the immediate ‘challenges’ is a shortage of qualified labour. CNIG’s Luís Correia da Silva admits that finding people to work on golf courses has become difficult “as many people have left the Algarve”.
“Our main concern is that if there is a consolidated recovery, we won’t have enough people to work and give the services we consider necessary” he told Expresso.
By NATASHA DONN