Alvor Boardwalk, Alvor

International tourism still troubled

It was hoped there would be clarity by now on the reopening of leisure travel from the UK, but international airlines, British holidaymakers desperate to get away and the tourist industry in Portugal are all greatly frustrated by the continuing uncertainty.

The recent taskforce framework report did not reveal any clues and the British Government has not announced anything about when and to what destinations and under what conditions its current international travel ban will be lifted after May 17.

“Rather than answering questions, the framework leaves everyone asking more,” said Steve Heapy, the chief executive of Jet2, which normally flies holidaymakers from the UK to Lisbon, the Algarve and Madeira among other places. Jet2 has now suspended all its flights until the third week in June.

Reuters reports that the bosses of all British airlines have “joined forces to urge the British government to ensure that all popular European destinations face the least onerous travel restrictions when holidays are permitted again”.

“The aviation industry is on its knees,” said the boss of Jet2, adding that under the present circumstances it was impossible for travel businesses to make proper plans.

The chief executive of easyJet, Johan Lundrgen, said he could not see any problem with opening up on May 17, but the airline does not expect passenger numbers to really pick up until late May.

The best the UK transport secretary Grant Shapps has been able to divulge is that people could now “start to think” about booking summer holidays”.

The UK Government has proposed a traffic light system that will list destination countries as red, amber or green depending on COVID risk factors. The government is especially concerned about travellers returning to the UK with Covid infections, especially any new variants of the virus.

While Britain’s aviation minister says it’s too early to predict, Portugal is expected to be one of the few countries to be in the ‘green’ category, probably along with Malta, Israel and the United States. Green list passengers will probably not have to quarantine upon returning home, but they may have to show a negative Covid test result shortly before boarding flights to and from overseas destinations.

The cost of tests is causing concern as it may exceed the cost of some international flights. A pre-departure PCR test in the UK currently costs about £128.

Portugal has lifted its overseas flight ban, but special checks will be kept in place on the border with Spain at least until early May. Meanwhile, Portugal has joined several other European Union countries in moving towards a COVID-19 passport scheme and   Portugal’s secretary of state for tourism, Rita Marques, told an online conference that this country will try to avoid “at all costs” passengers having to quarantine or take more tests this summer.

While the UK is Portugal’s number one source of visitors from abroad there are frustrating doubts too about major sources within the EU, such as France and Germany where COVID infection rates have been surging recently. Each EU country has its own non-essential travel deadlines and rules.

Portugal now has among the lowest COVID rates in Europe. With the easing of lockdown restrictions here this month and next, local tourist services may have to rely for the time being on domestic visitors until international leisure travellers are allowed in, hopefully as early as possible, before spring has completely finished and before the start of a very busy summer.

Len Port is a journalist and author based in the Algarve. Follow Len’s reflections on current affairs in Portugal on his blog: