There is a feeling of great optimism in the tourism industry in Portugal and all forecasts are that 2016 could be a record year. Tourism is vital for our economy and accounts for about 10% of the gross domestic product (GDP).
A record number of foreign tourists stayed in hotels last year, with the number surpassing 10 million visitors for the first time and boosting hotel revenues to nearly €2.5 billion, according to official data.
The National Statistics Institute (INE) shows that the number of foreign tourists reached 10.18 million in 2015, a rise of 10% on the previous year. As economic growth accelerated to 1.5% last year from 0.9% in 2014, the number of local travellers rose by 7% to 7.3 million.
Hotel revenues rose by more than 13%, outpacing the tourist arrivals’ growth, as hotels were able to increase prices thanks to strong demand.
Last year, Portugal opened more than 50 new hotels, mostly four- and five-star establishments.
A study by the Portuguese Tourism Institute (IPDT) states that the overwhelming majority of tourism operators here expect better results in 2016 than they did last year, which was the best to date.
The Tourism Barometer revealed that more than two-thirds (67.8%) of operators said this year would top 2015, while a quarter said that they believed results in 2016 would match those of last year.
Importance of safety and security
ABTA, the UK’s travel trade association for tour operators and travel agents, states that the safety and wellbeing of consumers is an integral part of the holiday experience. In a recent ABTA consumer survey, the results showed that safety and security was the number one priority, with 89% of consumers highlighting this as “important” or “very important”.
However, it is also a fact that tourists are less likely to pay attention to security issues while on vacation, and more willing to take risks or to visit unfamiliar environments. Tourists seek to rest and enjoy their leisure time; holidays are generally associated with tranquillity and a break from the negative aspects and events of everyday life.
Indicators of how Portugal stands
We unfortunately live in a troubled world with a high risk of terrorism in a number of European countries. Viewing a European terrorism map based on information provided by the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) shows Portugal as a low risk country – an “oasis” surrounded by European and North African countries where the risk is high/very high. Of course, one could argue the case that nowhere is safe, but it is a fact that the risk here is much lower than most places.
The Global Peace Index 2016, produced by the Institute for Economics and Peace (IEP), shows Portugal at 11th position out of 162 countries in terms of “peace”. The index gauges global peace using three broad themes: the level of safety and security in society, the extent of domestic and international conflict, and the degree of militarisation.
The recent report states that “Portugal was the greatest improver in Europe, jumping five places in both the global and European rankings. Portugal’s score was boosted by a reduction in political instability following its exit from the EU/IMF economic and financial adjustment programme. Like neighbouring Spain, Portugal also benefitted from a reduction in the likelihood of violent demonstrations at anti-austerity marches”.
In terms of crime, latest statistics show an overall crime rate of 34.3 crimes per 1,000 of population, the lowest in Europe compared to 39.4 just five years ago. Crime has been steadily decreasing since 2008, although there was a small 1% increase in 2015. Violent crime has decreased significantly over the last five years, with the largest decreases being in the Algarve, including the main holiday destinations.
In terms of visitor perception, surveys undertaken by the University of Algarve and by Safe Communities Algarve echo this, with findings showing that the overwhelming number of tourists consider the Algarve a very safe place to visit.
Maintaining Portugal as a safe destination
The current situation in Portugal does not come about by accident. Portugal may not be a rich country, but I have found, in my experience working closely with the police and other entities, that it is “rich” in terms of developing initiatives aimed at ensuring it is a safe and secure destination.
There are some excellent projects in place, especially designed to give support to tourists.
One of these is the “Estou Aqui – I am Here” project run by the PSP police. This is a bracelet for children aged 2-9, which can be ordered in advance and collected at any PSP station.
The bracelet is registered and should the child go missing and is found, the police can locate the parents through the details they have on record. Last year some 51,000 children were registered. It is also available for vulnerable adults.
During the last few years, both the GNR and PSP police forces have invested in foreign language training and, more recently, the GNR developed an excellent initiative by introducing training in sign language for some of its frontline staff. The language training is available in both English and German.
Given the high number of tourists visiting places such as Lisbon and the Algarve, the GNR and PSP have invested in tourism support through increased deployments during the summer months (in the Algarve), as well as dedicated beach patrols. Such patrols are undertaken by quadbike and by bicycle. These help in ensuring both visibility, a deterrence to crime and support to tourists who are in need.
In certain areas, the PSP have police tourism posts. I have visited these in Lisbon, Cascais and Praia da Rocha, and they are well equipped to deal with all sorts of matters involving tourists. The staff usually speak several languages.
To help with dealing with tourists from Spain, it is now the practice that Portuguese and Spanish police teams patrol together in a number of resorts in Portugal at peak holiday periods.
Inner cities can often become places where, due to the high concentration of people, crimes such as pickpocketing occur. This happens in Lisbon, however, figures are low in comparison with other European cities. The police have developed a number of initiatives aimed at tackling this problem, including holding an international seminar aimed at exchanging information and good practices with their overseas counterparts.
Recently, the Secretary of State for Home Affairs, Jorge Gomes, outlined a number of initiatives to add to those mentioned above, including creating “efficient coordination and fiscalisation instruments” in terms of border controls, increasingly important in the European context in dealing with terror threats.
However, maintaining a safe destination is not only a police responsibility but rather a collective responsibility by taking simple day-to-day measures to reduce the risk of opportunist crime.
The role of Safe Communities Portugal
We have a vital role to play in this and this is recognised by the Secretary of State for Tourism, when I met with her recently. We discussed a number of initiatives, which we have already been involved in as well as ideas for the future.
Safe Communities Portugal is part of the “Algarve – Safe Destination” project and in our website, www.safecommunitiesportugal.com, we have crime prevention advice available to tourists in 10 different languages.
We have links to eight different Embassies and have worked with the PSP, GNR and ANPC (Civil Protection) in developing initiatives to help ensure that visiting Portugal is a safe and enjoyable experience.
Portugal is indeed a safe destination but, with more work, it could become the world’s safest – something we should all aspire to.
By David Thomas
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David Thomas is a former Assistant Commissioner of the Hong Kong Police, consultant to INTERPOL and the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime. In October 2011 he founded Safe Communities Algarve an on-line platform www.safecommunitiesalgarve.com here in the Algarve to help the authorities and the community prevent crime. It is now registered as Associação SCP Safe Communities Portugal, the first national association of its type in Portugal, with a new website www.safecommunitiesportugal.com launched in May 2015. He can be contacted at [email protected], or on 913045093 or at www.facebook.com/scalgarve