Photo: Open Media Group

Hoteliers in new meltdown as sector owns up to ‘inconvenient truths’

It has been another mad week of shock announcements and seemingly knee-jerk decisions – both in the wider sphere and for the Algarve. Down south, the biggest ‘shock’ to the gasping tourism industry has been the resignation of hoteliers association grandee Elidérico Viegas for ‘saying it like it is’.

The truth, as Portugal approaches the Easter weekend with populations ‘confined to their boroughs of residence’, is that tourism – this country’s great strength – has been sacrificed on the altar of combat against Covid-19.

On Monday, further flight restrictions were announced, ensuring both Brits and Brazilians (potentially bringing their ‘worrying variants’) were ‘verboten’ just a little bit longer (until April 15 now). But the announcement also introduced new land border restrictions: no one from countries registering more than 500 cases of Covid per 100,000 inhabitants can arrive by car without going into 14 days of prophylactic isolation, irrespective of any negative Covid test they may be flourishing.

The new rules – ostensibly designed to head off Brits, Brazilians and South Africans who may be trying to get here by land – will also ‘ban’ the arrival of any French or Italians, or any other countries where the epidemiological situation is running high.

Of course, these are all perfectly understandable measures – but for a country that relies on foreign tourism for myriad sectors of the economy – and bearing in mind many aspirant visitors will be perfectly healthy, despite the pandemic – this is all hugely damaging for business.

This is why the interview given to Jornal i by the then president of AHETA (Algarve hoteliers association), Elidérico Viegas, was so earth-shattering.

Instead of trying to play King Canute and insist the industry he has spent 26 years of his life promoting will ‘survive’, Mr Viegas declared that 2021 will be every bit as lean and ghastly as 2020.

And 2020 for tourism in Portugal was “the worst year ever”.

While the government scrambled the secretary of state for tourism – who will still have been at university when Mr Viegas took the helm of AHETA – the full extent of Elidérico’s interview was just too ‘inconvenient’ to plaster over. It cut through the bluster, the bling and the blather. It ‘cost’ him his position, but worse, it has set the sector ‘against itself’ at a time when unity is needed more than ever.

Says Jornal i, “the truth is that (his) declarations are recognised by almost the whole sector” – but they were so politically ‘incorrect’ no-one is quite sure what to do with them.

The furore has centred on Mr Viegas’ bombshell over World Travel Award prizes – which the Algarve, and Portugal, declares at least twice a year with great pomp and circumstance.

In the end, these are ‘shams’ in that the businesses pay for them themselves, he told i, “awarded by private organisations that aim to make a profit and sell seats according to the prices paid”.

“Everyone in Portugal laps this up, but the rest of the world doesn’t know anything. Nobody knows we are ‘the best in the world’. Only we know …”

And quizzed over the €300 million of EU funds due to be invested in the Algarve on vital projects, he suggested this was all “just talk” – a plan that has “already gone back into a drawer and the minister’s pocket”.

Strangely, the ‘outrage’ generated by the article hasn’t really focused on this ‘inconvenient opinion’ (we cannot call it a truth at this point), but some might argue it is far worse than the admission that awards can be purchased.

Whatever the case, the thrust of Mr Viegas’ interview was that Easter is (clearly) lost, and a return to business – whenever it comes – won’t mean tourists will simply miraculously appear, or that struggling businesses will survive. It will take five years to recover what the Algarve has lost, says this outgoing grandee of touristic promotion – and to be fair, he is almost certainly spot on.

But 24 hours after his interview went online, the rest of the AHETA board issued its statement to say they couldn’t ‘subscribe’ to Mr Viegas’ views.

Acknowledging his ‘relevant role’ in defending the interests of the Algarve’s touristic businesses and affirming AHETA as ‘the most influential and representative business association in the region’, the joint signatories nonetheless felt it was the moment to draw a line and elect a new head honcho.

Mr Viegas duly tendered his resignation, and on Monday AHETA said goodbye to a man who has been the face of the organisation for longer than most people can remember.

And now what? Well, if the statement from AHETA is anything to go by, the region will return to ‘saying it like it isn’t’, which in these difficult times is possibly the last thing that’s needed.

Secretary of State for Tourism Rita Marques believes Portugal as a whole could do between 20-30% more business this year than it did last. Yet this year, entry into the country will be even further compromised by bits of paper flying about purporting to be ‘Green Passports’ (documents that will declare the carrier either vaccinated against Covid-19, immune or the carrier of a negative test).

Very few have queried the fact that none of these ‘situations’ can be considered much more than ‘a photograph in time’. Immunity conferred by the vaccines lasts ‘possibly six months, maybe nine’ (no-one really knows). Immunity conferred by having contracted the virus and recovered lasts ‘possibly three months’ (again, no-one can be sure), and a negative test is as good as it is for little more than a day or two … There are no guarantees in this pandemic and the more we face this, the less the likelihood of losing people who actually know what they are talking about.

For the time being, we have no idea what Mr Viegas will be doing with the rest of his life. But for sure he has dozens of supporters. Paying tribute to his contributions of the last 26 years, Algarve PSD MP Cristóvão Norte said he personally didn’t find anything wrong or insulting with anything Mr Viegas said in the interview. “He is a person who has always endeavoured to ensure the region progresses,” he told i on Monday.

And progression, really, is all we can hope for.

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Elidérico Viegas’ ‘earth-shattering’ interview for Jornal I ‘cost’ him his position
at the Algarve association representing hoteliers, AHETA