The Algarve is being viewed as a ‘Covid-safe’ destination at a time when the number of people looking to book summer holidays is surging, despite all the uncertainty related to the pandemic. It is a ray of hope for a sector that is expecting an unprecedented crisis.
Elidérico Viegas, president of the Algarve hotelier association (AHETA), told the Resident on Tuesday that the region is setting itself apart from rival destinations, such as Spain and Italy, where the outbreak has had devastating consequences.
“The pandemic has had a relatively low impact in Portugal, and in the Algarve in particular,” said Viegas.
“Portuguese and foreign holidaymakers, particularly British, are looking to us as a Covid-safe destination. Hotels are being contacted by an increasing number of people looking to book their summer holidays here.
“For example, the British and German governments have advised their citizens against travelling to Spain. This could be a good opportunity for the Algarve. Around 18 million British and 11 million German holidaymakers travel to Spain, just to give you an idea of the impact these markets have on the sector.”
It is a positive sign for an industry that is counting the days until it can return to “business as usual”, but it will not prevent what hoteliers believe will be an unprecedented crisis in the Algarve.
As Viegas told us, many hotels have decided to remain closed this summer due to the overwhelming number of cancelled bookings, while others are expecting to reopen in June/early July. And while many foreign holidaymakers may want to travel here, it is unclear whether they will be able to.
“It all depends on how the aviation industry will recover and whether other countries will lift their restrictive measures preventing people from leaving the country,” the AHETA boss explained.
One aspect is certain, occupancy rates will be a long way from the near-100% seen in recent years.
“Even a 40% occupancy rate for the summer, fuelled mostly by Portuguese tourists, would be an optimistic scenario and would help mitigate the losses that hotels experienced since the pandemic started,” he stated, explaining that this rate would be calculated based on the hotels that are open. In other words, the real figures – taking every hotel into account – would be even lower.
Hoteliers are thus urging the government to extend its ‘simplified lay-off’ regime, “at least until next Easter”, when the tourism sector is expected to start recovering, even if at a “slow pace”.
Employees covered by this scheme receive two-thirds of their usual gross salary, with 70% being paid for by Social Security and 30% by the employer. However, AHETA wants the government to start covering the whole sum.
Said Viegas, summer bookings won’t generate enough wealth to see hotels in a stable financial situation, with many employers unable to pay wages even if workers are covered by the lay-off regime.
“If companies end up having to dismiss workers, then the government will have to face an even greater financial burden through having to pay unemployment benefits,” he stressed.
Nearly every hotel in the Algarve has been forced to lay off workers, said Elidérico Viegas, admitting that this government support measure is the one most suited to the needs of the sector but needs to be extended.
“We have to learn to live with the virus”
Elidérico Viegas says the coronavirus pandemic has changed the way we live and will also change the way we spend our holidays.
“We are going to have to learn how to live with the virus, at least until a cure or vaccine are found.
Getting the economy back on its feet will imply measures that up until now were not needed,” he said.
Social distancing will be mandatory, he said, while hotels will have to disinfect their rooms and common areas much more frequently. Restaurants and bars will also have to limit the number of people that can be inside at any one time, while “common sense and good behaviour” will be necessary when it comes to sharing a swimming pool.
“Many hotels are changing their contingency plans in order to adapt to the coronavirus pandemic,” he said, adding that he believes holidaymakers will be understanding and welcome these measures.
“In fact, the non-existence of these measures could be viewed negatively by tourists and affect the image of the region as a safe destination in the context of the pandemic.”
While Viegas is aware of the danger of a second wave of the outbreak, he also made it clear that the tourism sector cannot survive without tourists.
“You cannot offer virtual holidays. The people who work in this sector cannot work from home. It is a sector that requires people to be here physically to experience what the region has to offer. It is risky, of course, but that is why preventive measures will be absolutely necessary. We will have to take great precaution when we start lifting some of these measures,” he admitted.
In a recent interview with Observador newspaper, Prime Minister António Costa urged Portuguese citizens to “wait a few more weeks” before they consider going on holiday, but to not forget that the tourism sector must resume its activity even if at a much slower pace than usual.
“By this summer, the situation will be sufficiently controlled so that we can book and enjoy holidays in the best way possible. For now, my recommendation is that the Portuguese plan their holidays in Portugal because, in these uncertain times, we will always be safer here,” he said.
By MICHAEL BRUXO