‘There is nowhere better for a sun and beach holiday!’.jpg

‘There is nowhere better for a sun and beach holiday!’

HÉLDER MARTINS was born in the interior of Loulé and has enjoyed a long career in tourism. Prior to becoming President of the Região de Turismo do Algarve (the Algarve Tourism Board), he worked in the hotel industry, in the rent-a-car business and also once owned a restaurant in Querença. During his career, he has also been an adviser to the Civil Government in the Algarve and Vice-President of Loulé Câmara. He lives in Quarteira with his wife and three daughters aged 13, 11 and six. The Resident’s Caroline Cunha caught up with him to discuss the current issues affecting the region and the RTA’s recent projects.

The Resident: Press reports say that 40,000 bikers attended the 25th Faro motorbike convention recently. It is certainly a different form of tourism for the Algarve. Is it valuable for the local economy?

Hélder Martins: Yes, definitely, and the RTA supports this annual event. The motorbike convention does bring money into the Algarve; some bikers choose to stay in four and five star hotels rather than staying at the festival’s campsite. People travel from all over and even from as far as the US and Russia. It is good to have this multifaceted event here in the Algarve.

T.R: There are lots of events taking place in the Algarve this summer. Are you satisfied with the programme?

H.M: I think that 2006 is the best year ever for events – we have the biggest programme to date. With between 1.5 and two million people in the Algarve at this time of year, you can never have enough events and you will always have plenty of clients to attend them. Now we must work hard to make arrangements for the rest of the year. Many boroughs have events on the same day and we should have greater co-ordination between the municipalities, the RTA and private entities to spread out the events more.

Also, we need more indoor venues for staging events. The Pavilhão do Arade in Parchal (Lagoa) will be ready in December, which will have a large capacity. The problem we have is that if we bring in a good artist, it is difficult to spread the cost if there are not enough seats. For example, we brought Joaquín Cortés to Faro Municipal Theatre and there were only 700 seats, but the show sold out in a matter of hours. When the Congress Centre at Parque das Cidades opens, it will have a capacity for 4,500 to 5,000 people. It will be able to hold lawyers’ and doctors’ conferences and stage some shows.

T.R: The Algarve Summer Festival was not as well attended as forecast (half full for both concerts). What was the reason for this, do you think?

H.M: The Algarve Summer Festival was staged over two days this year, instead of one. This was because the promoter guaranteed a two-day line-up for the same investment. In my opinion, we should keep it to a one-day event in the future.

It was a shame as there were thousands of people in the Algarve that week because of the public holiday. However, the weather was unusually bad in the days leading up to the festival and, therefore, people cancelled their hotel bookings and quite a lot of people checked out early, leaving the Algarve before the festival began.

But we are going to keep doing the festival and are already discussing the programme for next year.

T.R: What about the Algarve Stadium? What is the latest situation? When will it become profitable?

H.M: The RTA has been involved in the events staged at the stadium so far and this will continue. The Algarve Stadium is a large infrastructure, which costs lots of money, and one of the problems is that, in Portugal, people expect to be given venues free of charge or even for councils to pay to bring events to their city. This is also the case with the stadium, so it is difficult to bring in money. It is part of the culture; for example, every year, I receive around 2,500 letters requesting funding at different levels for small and large events and festivities.

Vítor Aleixo and Luís Coelho were the Presidents of Loulé and Faro Câmaras at the time the Algarve Stadium project was on the table, and they decided together that the stadium should be built, thinking that the government would offer further funding. However, this never materialised. They then went to other entities and municipalities to request financial support. What should have happened, is that the presidents of all the Algarve councils should have sat down together with AMAL (the entity which represents the 16 municipalities) from the start, in order to discuss the funding and management possibilities. Things that start badly, never get better, as we say in Portuguese!  

However, on a positive note, by the Algarve staging some of the matches of the Euro 2004 Football Championship, it probably was good promotion for the region, although the results are impossible to measure directly. There were so many journalists in the Algarve during the tournament, not to mention visitors of many different nationalities including German, Dutch and Danish. And now, in 2006, the number of Germans and Dutch visiting the Algarve has increased by 30 per cent against last year and the number of Scandinavians is up too.

I agree with the view that private management of the stadium could be advantageous and would make things different. However, I also believe that when the new Hospital Central and Congress Centre are built at Parque das Cidades, in Faro, things will get better. It can become the centre of the Algarve at different levels.

T.R: According to IATA, air traffic in Portugal is increasing by 2.7 per cent and 4.6 per cent in July and August. It seems more and more new routes are being introduced ….

H.M: Yes, that’s right, and the statistics concerning Faro Airport are very promising. A total of 4.75 million passengers came through Faro Airport in 2005, an increase of 2.4 per cent. Regular flights (including low cost) were up 26.2 per cent, while charters were down 20.6 per cent. Every year, half-a-million passengers fly with easyJet into Faro alone and it is the main airline using Faro Airport. There are 20 flights per week from Ireland to Faro alone now, and flights from Germany are also increasing.

Yes, we are always trying to secure new routes to the Algarve. What we want is there to be regular flights throughout the year from France (Paris), Italy (Milan) and Spain (Madrid), in order to help fight seasonality. We are also working towards attracting new tour operators from Russia.

Famous Portuguese footballers, Rui Costa and Luís Figo, have been helping to promote the Algarve in Milan, and I believe we can have a good connection with the Italian market. Hopefully next year, there will be flights every day from Milan.

The number of flights from Spain has increased, but trying to secure direct flights from Madrid last year did not prove a success. In Madrid, there are 70,000 golfers without courses to play on, due to the fact that the capital boasts mainly private clubs and Madrid is just 90 minutes from the Algarve by plane. We are also trying to attract visitors from Barcelona, but there is no direct flight from there at the moment, which is a shame because they are good clients who like to enjoy the restaurants, and so on.  The Algarve recently won the IAGTO Best Golf Destination in the World Award and we want to capitalise on this. We are still looking to confirm a Spanish airline partnership.

T.R: Are you satisfied with the police enforcements and new multilingual beach teams this year?

H.M: In my opinion, there are never enough police and I am never pleased. I am tired of saying the same thing – we need more police in the Algarve all year round, not only in summer. We have meetings with the Minister for Internal Administration every year and it is always the same story. Having said this, what is better is that we now have multilingual police officers here. In the past, it was very difficult to find a policeman who could speak another language apart from Portuguese. As a tourist destination, it is important that we can offer this service. For example, if a tourist has had something stolen, it is important for them to be able to communicate and receive the support they need. I am also pleased about the teams of police patrolling on bicycles.

T.R: Signage in the Algarve is quite a mess. It is confusing, untidy and insufficient. What is being done about this?

H.M: The RTA has developed a programme with the Instituto de Estradas de Portugal (IEP) whereby each is contributing 50 per cent towards the cost of new information signs for beauty spots, tourist sites, beaches (for example, beaches with access for disabled people), monuments and general information. This is being done on the national roads, such as the EN125. Also, the illegal signs will be taken down and graffiti removed. The problem is the municipal roads, which are not controlled by the IEP. We are, therefore, working with the Direcção Regional da Economia do Algarve and AMAL to devise a programme for the rest of the roads.

T.R: Can you tell us more about the current environmental campaign, Algarve Com Mais Prazer (A More Pleasurable Algarve)?

H.M: A widespread poster campaign has been launched to remind those living in the Algarve that, in environmental terms, we must think of the region as a whole, and not only consider the resorts, if we want to be a good tourist destination. Education must begin at school level.

Also, a campaign was recently launched by DECO, the consumer rights group, in conjunction with Faro Câmara and the Centro Azul (environmental defence centre) based at Faro Beach, to educate people about the importance of keeping the beaches clean. Information boards have been put up at the borough’s beaches picturing typical items often left on beaches and the average time they take to biodegrade. For example, a tin can could take 200 years to biodegrade!

Recently, I was with a group of Spanish journalists on Faro’s Ilha Deserta. The journalists agreed though that it was a fantastic beach and could be even better than the Caribbean. We have to change the mindset. We have been blessed with nature. For example, I was on Culatra beach and there was no one around for 3km to my right and left. It is a paradise and has to be kept clean. Here in the Algarve, we can offer secluded beaches and the more social beach settings, but they must be well looked after!

Also, as well as being more environmentally friendly, we are also trying to get people to smile more. People working in hotels, restaurants, as well as residents here in the Algarve are not smiling enough and this is important in order to welcome tourists.

T.R: Are you satisfied with occupation levels so far in 2006?

H.M: Yes, definitely. The Algarve was the region in Portugal that saw the highest increase in its occupation levels last year; 4.5 per cent in terms of nights spent in the Algarve, bringing the total to 13,855,595, while the total number of clients was 2.6 million, up eight per cent on the previous year. This number was a 39 per cent share of the total number of staying guests in Portugal. Income was up seven per cent at 487 million euros. Over the first five months of 2006, all the figures have increased. The number of golf rounds has increased by 7.5 per cent and the number of passengers at Faro Airport is up 7.8 per cent.

T.R: What rival destinations do you see as being a threat to the Algarve and what can be done about this?

H.M: Turkey, Egypt, Tunisia and the Balearic Islands. I visited Turkey in June and stayed at a five star hotel. There, they were offering a one week, all inclusive holiday for 500 euros per person. And it was free of charge for the first child. I spoke to the hotel’s director of food and beverage, who told me that providing food and drink cost them 3,50 euros per day per person. There, the government provides land free of charge for hotels and developments, and staff such as cleaners are not paid salaries; they live on their tips. What we must do is compete in terms of quality and not price.

Last year, of the 2.6 million tourism clients recorded in the Algarve, 986,000 were from Portugal and 781,406 were from the UK, but we should not depend on existing markets.

T.R: What is the latest situation with regard to the problems concerning the licensing of rental properties?

H.M: I have spoken to the Secretary of State for Tourism many times about the parallel beds situation and about the fact that the country is losing money. When I give figures, I give the legal beds, the legalised tourism offer. However, we cannot close our eyes – parallel beds do exist. We know many people buy homes in the Algarve to rent out.

I think that rental properties here could be registered with the RTA and so could be controlled on a regional basis. If the property was clean, safe and listed with the tax authorities, the RTA would issue a licence. It would be so much simpler like that.

These privately owned villas and apartments cannot be asked to follow tourist development legislation as is currently the case. It seems that there is still a lack of awareness from the government as to this problem. What are we going to do? Close down all these 200,000 (parallel) beds? In my view, it is just not possible for them to be legalised under the Regulamento Municipal dos Estabelecimentos de Hospedagem.

T.R: There has been uproar over the shutting down of the out-of-hours emergency service at Faro Airport. What is your view on this?

H.M: Faro Airport closes at midnight and opens around 6am. It has always had a team of Bombeiros on site at night. Therefore, if a plane was flying over the Algarve airspace, got into trouble and needed to make an emergency landing, it could ask for help from Faro Airport. Quite recently, ANA, the company that operates the airport, decided to suspend this service as apparently, over the last 10 years, only around eight or nine planes needed to land at Faro Airport during the night. It appears to be a money issue. In my opinion, it is necessary to always have an emergency team on site during the night and I am waiting to have a meeting with the Airport Director to discuss this issue. Incidents can occur and, as a tourist destination, we need to be seen to be able to offer all necessary assistance. Just this week, a Monarch plane experienced problems when a fire broke out in the engine. This was during the day and everything was resolved. However, when and if things do go wrong, it will always reflect on the image of the region’s tourism.  

T.R: The Resident recently reported on the case of Klube K, an open air disco in the Vilamoura area that is causing guests to check out of a nearby country club due to the unbearable noise and is also annoying local residents. What can the RTA do in cases such as this?

H.M: The RTA does not have the power to intervene, but can try to use its influence with the Câmara President. I know this particular case very well. It is a disco that opens for four to five weeks every summer and there are lots of complaints about it.

What we have here is a problem of planning. We need discos and bars because the Algarve is a holiday destination for all ages and we need venues for young people. Until 2002, Klube K didn’t possess any official papers, but the owners, who are from Lisbon, allegedly had influence with the government. In 2002, Loulé council closed it down. However, it opened again after that and it seems the owners allegedly have connections with each government that comes to power. I don’t know if Klube K has managed to get a licence to open this year.

T.R: The number of dead cats and dogs lying on the roads in the Algarve and the prevalence of strays cannot be good for the region’s image as a quality tourist destination. Are you concerned this will put off holidaymakers from returning?

H.M: At the moment, there is a campaign running on Portuguese television, urging people to either take their dogs with them on holidays or to place them at a dog hotel or boarding kennels, not to abandon them on the streets. This is a good initiative and there needs to be more like this. It is all a matter of education and I believe responsible behaviour needs to be taught at school level. There seems to be more and more pet hotels opening in the Algarve and I fully support this. I am also a supporter of the Canil São Francisco in Loulé, which cares for around 300 homeless dogs, and give them regular donations. Councils in the Algarve have a municipal vet and kennels, but more needs to be done to raise awareness of the problem of strays.

T.R: Making sure other people enjoy their holidays in the Algarve is part of your job. But when you have time off, where do you go to relax and spend your holidays?

H.M: Actually, I haven’t had a proper holiday for around six or seven years, just a few weekends away. I never stop. For example, I have four different events this evening that I must attend. However, no one is forcing me to do this job, I enjoy what I do!

This summer is going to be different. I will change my mobile phone number and take two weeks holiday! We will stay here in the Algarve … there is nowhere better for a sun and beach holiday. A friend of mine is lending me a house on the Ria Formosa.

T.R: What is your vision for the Algarve?

H.M: The future of the Algarve is tourism. Everyone living in the Algarve must be sure that tourism is the region’s main activity. We don’t want the interior to be like the coast, but we must also have some resorts and developments in the interior. We must respect the environment, but fundamentalism should not prevent progress. The bad planning decisions that led to overpopulated high rise areas were made in the 70s and 80s, but now we have some very good examples of new attractive low density developments such as Suites Alba in Carvoeiro (a project backed by Luís Figo), Vila Monte near Moncarapacho and The Lake Resort in Vilamoura. We should continue along this vein.