Portuguese tourism is on tenterhooks as the prospects for 2021 remain hugely uncertain.
Said a report by SIC television over the weekend, 50% of Germans have already said they will not be travelling abroad this year, while in England the government is deciding on new legislation today (Thursday) that could well bring in fines of £5,000 for citizens who flout ‘official guidance’ and zip off to the sunshine for a week or two.
Only a few weeks ago, it “all looked so promising”: secretary of state for tourism Rita Marques was telling the BBC that Portugal would be ready to receive Brits – who represent a huge slice of its foreign tourist market – from early May, and Boris Johnson’s government seemed to be saying that the ban on foreign travel would be lifted on May 17.
Suddenly it all changed. Indeed, the whole atmosphere has changed: Europe is threatening to block vaccines manufactured within the bloc from filling orders in UK, while politicians in England are saying ‘actually, it may be far too soon to think of any kind of foreign travel this summer…’
The official reason is ‘worrying variants’ running rampant in a Europe that is being “engulfed by a third wave”.
Yes, a number of Northern European countries have brought in new restrictions due to rising numbers, but with the exception of Italy (which has an incidence rate still of around 264 cases per 100,000), southern holiday destinations are ‘doing fine’.
Spain is preparing to welcome tourists; Portugal’s numbers are testament to weeks of crippling economic lockdown and could hardly be better.
And what is the issue with worrying variants, when millions of Brits have already been fully vaccinated?
One minute we are assured that the vaccinations being pushed so heavily as the way out of this crisis ‘can cope with the British variant, can cope with the South African variant, can cope with the Brazilian variant’… then one hears the English government “doesn’t want the risk of importing worrying variants”.
This week, specialists told the latest meeting of health authorities and the government that almost 90% of cases in Portugal now are the so-called British variant – and on that score, we are down to the lowest numbers since last summer; hospitals are vastly relieved of pressure; intensive care units have fewer patients than even the experts predicted by the end of March (and we haven’t reached the end of March yet…).
To a huge degree, people have become so saturated by the ‘bad news’ and official narrative of woe and worry, that they seem to accept every bit of ‘data’ without query.
Elidérico Viegas, president of AHETA (the Algarve’s hoteliers association), is as pessimistic as anyone in the industry could be after a year in which normality has morphed into a kind of masochistic science fiction.
He told SIC wearily over the weekend: “While we can’t bring the ‘sanitary problem’ under control, it will be difficult to maintain a regular flow of tourists from one country to another, and between countries.”
The solution, in Mr Viegas’ opinion, is for Portugal to ‘do its homework’ and ensure it is seen by other countries (governments) as a safe travel destination.
But if the sun-loving citizens of one country that used to fill Portugal’s hotels, villas, bars, restaurants and beaches are being banned from leaving their country for anything but ‘non-essential reasons’ (see below), business will be hammered.
Mr Viegas agreed. He told SIC: “Many hotels in the Algarve” will very likely stay closed this year.
TVI24 on Wednesday carried a report with the headline “British tourists advised against coming to Portugal” – and it was at this point that one had to pause for a moment and realise that all these ‘headlines’ have arrived without any official policy decisions.
They began with the utterances of Dr Mike Tildesley of the Scientific Pandemic Influenza modelling group that feeds into Sage (the English government’s scientific advisors). He told reporters last Saturday that overseas holidays this summer (for English citizens) were “extremely unlikely”.
But the policy decision is not due until mid-April. Yes, England’s defence secretary Ben Wallace has played into the scenario by “refusing to rule out” the possibility that the current travel ban on overseas travel might be extended to the end of June, but all he actually said was that the English government would “play it by ear”.
Reading between the lines, what seems much more likely is that the English government will operate a kind of ‘traffic light’ system controlling foreign travel, similar to the one operated (albeit a tad shambolically) last summer.
Countries that comply with ‘certain criteria’ would be ‘okayed’ for holidays – in which case, Portugal is well on track to be at the top of any ‘green list’.
If not, one has to ask the question: how can people continue to believe that vaccines are the answer?
England is a world-leader in the vaccination process. How can it tell its citizens that even so, it is not safe for them to take a holiday outside the British Isles?
The world’s tourism and aviation sectors can only hold their breaths.
Said Paul Charles, chief executive of the PC Agency travel consultancy: “We’re still eight weeks away from a re-start of the travel sector and the (English) government has the time to introduce measures which balance public health with mental health. Widespread testing on arrival at the airport, as well as the introduction of a clear traffic light system, would enable safe and responsible overseas travel to resume, while also protect two million jobs at risk if travel this summer can’t be saved.”
Tim Alderslade, chief executive of Airlines UK, told The Times: “It is too early to say what the state of Covid will be in Europe and globally in 10 weeks. Our focus between now and then must be working with ministers on a framework for travel that is robust and workable, and can stand the test of time as we enter the all-important summer period.”
Essential travel includes ‘10 reasonable excuses’
Dubbed the Stanley Johnson loophole, the UK government’s proposed legislation covering fines for holidaymakers includes ‘10 reasonable excuses’ – 10 ways people CAN get out of England and away to the sunshine. These are:
■ Legal obligations or to vote
■ Moving, selling or renting property
■ Childcare reasons or to be present at a birth
■ Visiting a dying relative or close friend
■ Attending a funeral
■ Getting married or attending the wedding of a close relative
■ Medical appointments
■ Escaping a risk of harm
Bearing in mind Stanley Johnson (Boris Johnson’s father) got round travel restrictions by saying it was essential that he travel to Greece to make his villa Covid-safe, it’s possible other citizens will use their own powers of creativity.
Certainly, the exemption pleases property sales. Said Alda Filipe, commercial director of Kronos Homes, with touristic and residential property developments in Lisbon and the Algarve: “It’s fantastic to see the UK government recognise the responsibilities that come with owning a property overseas. Buying overseas, whether to live there permanently, rent your property out or plan for your retirement, is a huge decision and requires extensive due diligence. There’s a big difference between going on holiday and deciding to move abroad with your family.”
Post-script from one reader returning from holiday in Costa Rica
Algarve resident and journalist Elizabeth Montalbano returns to her home in Aljezur this weekend after a month-long stay in Costa Rica. She tells us: “In Costa Rica, they only test if you have symptoms and/or need a test for travel. Things are nearly open like normal, just masks in shops and no large gatherings.
People are out and about and not masked outside. Hospitals are operating normally. There are a lot of tourists like me escaping harsh lockdowns from the EU, Canada and the US, so everyone in business is raking in the cash due to the lenient policy (you also don’t need a test nor a quarantine to enter the country. You just need to buy travel insurance to cover you in case you get sick). And yes, people still get Covid, but there is no hysteria and no grim counting or politicians making up different rules week to week. Europe seems to be shooting itself in the foot by focusing on Covid all the time. It seems like their intent is to kill everyone with depression and poverty! If the hospitals are not overwhelmed, they should stop testing randomly: let people who are sick get tested and go to hospital if necessary (and then monitor the situation) and let the rest return to their lives…”
By NATASHA DONN