Tourism on ‘knife edge’ as country registers highest daily case rise since May

UPDATED SEPTEMBER 9:

Only a week ago Portugal’s battered tourism sector was holding its breath ‘praying for a miracle’. Everyone thought that if the country held onto its airbridge with UK the low season would be assured. Against all odds, it did – but the consequences have been anything but miraculous.

 This is largely because in retaining Portugal’s ‘safe travel status’, British Transport minister Grant Shapps made it crystal clear that his decision could be reversed ‘at any minute’.

 This came AFTER endless reports in the British press that Portugal was coming off the so-called green list which led to a veritable stampede of holidaymakers already here cutting short their stays in a rush to buy new tickets home before quarantine was reinstated.

 Meanwhile families booked to arrive hurriedly cancelled.

 And to make matters even worse, Scotland and Wales decided to remove Portugal from their own ‘air bridges’ – meaning any Brits travelling back to Scotland or Wales DO need to go into 14 days of quarantine.

 Thus in a matter of days, the UK’s approach to one of its nationals’ favourite holiday destinations fractured, taking with it a  shed-load of traveler confidence.

 Hotelier Chitra Stern co-owner of the Martinhal group of family-friendly resorts which has operations in the Algarve and Cascais told the Telegraph it’s “simply not possible” for the hotel industry to work in this way – while the golfing sector (which traditionally gets its best months in September and October) is in despair.

“We’re on a knife edge”, Luís Correia da Silva, president of CNIG, the national council of the golf industry told Expresso. “For October, no one knows whether we’ll have the air corridor or not. They let us keep it this time, but there are no guarantees that we’ll get it in the next review, particularly if we continue registering daily infections of 400 (or so)” (which give or take a few numbers here or there seems to be the case).

“These circumstances are creating great uncertainty among the British about the decision to come or not to the Algarve”, stressed Correia da Silva.

Today (Thursday) sees the opening of the Portugal Masters (running till Sunday) at Vilamoura’s Victoria course, owned by the Dom Pedro group of hotels.  At least this will be attracting “some of the best players in Europe who at the moment don’t have many alternatives”, said the CNIG president.

Dom Pedro’s director of hotels and golfing operations Paulo stressed that despite all the restrictions and fears regarding Covid, the Algarve is still a marvellous place for any golfer to be.

“Golf is an individual sport where the risk of contagion is very low – and we have all the conditions to comply with DGS health directorate sanitary measures”, he said.

It’s simply a question of ‘confidence’, which papers like the Telegraph have said has been “destroyed for good” by the shambolic way the whole air bridge policy has been handled.

A week ago, British health minister Matt Hancock announced a decision on Portugal’s ‘travel corridor’ would come ‘at Friday lunchtime’.

Then, out of the blue, came the tweet on Thursday late afternoon from Grant Shapps saying there would be ‘no English additions or removals’ to foreign office travel advice ‘today’.

Yes, there was momentary relief and a sense of delight among those who hadn’t beaten a hasty and expensive early retreat home. But this soon dissipated. Portugal’s virus numbers have continued to rise; hospital admissions have suddenly started to increase, and Mr Shapps has always tempered his tweets with the warning that the travel corridor remains “under constant review” and can “change at very short notice”.

Visiting Castro Marim last Friday, President Marcelo seemed to sense the downward spiral, saying he “had hoped that case numbers would be rising in the region of around 100 per day in September”.

This is still looking a long way off. But bizarrely here we are a week on and as we write this text Portugal does at least still have air bridge status.

Another ‘plus’ is that the UK appears to be ready to change its approach to international travel.

Articles in the press on Monday described Grant Shapps as “working night and day to explore the possibility of an airport testing regime” (to reduce the time travelers would be forced into quarantine), while Matt Hancock and Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab have apparently “pledged to review quarantine rules”.

The wider tourism and travel industry is powering the sense of urgency. Sixty businesses delivered a European Tourism Manifesto to the EU on Monday in an appeal to the governments of member states to “harmonise restrictions” before the sector is damaged any further.

Describing itself as the voice of the European travel and tourism sector, the manifesto stresses “it is crucial that travel within the EU and the wider European area (including EEA, UK and Switzerland) be carefully and quickly restored”.

European travel and tourism has been “the ecosystem most affected by the coronavirus crisis due to insufficiently coordinated travel restrictions, declining traveller confidence and reduced consumer demand”.

Talking to Dinheiro Vivo on Monday evening, president of NERA, the Algarve’s business association Vítor Neto said 2020 truly has been the worst year for the sector since 1950 (basically meaning since records for tourism began). What lies ahead will be another ‘challenge’, he said: Portugal’s need to reaffirm its value as a destination in a market that will be “increasingly aggressive”.

But for now the focus is on our numbers: and the last seven days’ rolling average is not looking good. 

Some papers have put it at 46 in 100,000 – way beyond the so-called UK benchmark of 20.The heavily-populated areas of Lisbon and Vale do Tejo and the north of Portugal are the areas most affected, but until Portugal hears categorically that it is ‘back on the UK’s blacklist’, businesses are trying to stay positive and hope low-season holidaymakers brave the uncertainty and keep on coming.

Original text: 

Tourism continues on a knife-edge as Portugal registers daily increases in Covid-19 infections way beyond the low numbers expected.

Yesterday (Saturday) saw the highest daily increase (+486) since May – and despite numbers in the Algarve remaining low the ‘collateral damage’ has been brutal.

It is not enough to have retained the coveted air-bridge with UK ‘for the time being’, knowledge that the situation could change at any moment has hammered reservations that could have helped ‘save’ the low season.

Talking to the Telegraph last week, Chitra Stern of the Martinhal group of family-friendly hotels said “in the last few days bookings for September have been cancelled due to speculation about the re-imposition of quarantine”.

It’s “simply not possible” for the hotel industry to work in this way, she stressed. 

Elsewhere, bookings for golfing holidays are showing 70% falls from the same time last year – and with the current ‘numbers’ being published every day by DGS health chiefs, everyone in the industry is holding their breaths.

Visiting Castro Marim in the Algarve on Friday, President Marcelo said he ‘had hoped that case numbers would be rising in the region of around 100 per day in September’.

This is still looking quite some way off.

“Sadly, the data hasn’t been what we would have liked”, Luís Correia da Silva, president of CNIG, the national council of the golf industry, told Expresso. “When we got the air corridor (with UK, on August 22) what we gained instantly was a halt in cancellations which were coming in every day. 

“But the growth in the number of reservations wasn’t that significant – around 10% to 15%, practically only Britons. There wasn’t the rush of reservations that we had thought would come”.

Thus, the bottom line has been that income losses have reduced, but “not with sufficient impact”.

“We’re on a knife edge”, admitted Correia da Silva at a time being traditionally the golfing sector would be starting its autumn boom. “For October, no one knows whether we’ll have the air corridor or not. They let us keep it this time, but there are no guarantees that we’ll get it in the next review, particularly if we continue registering daily infections of 400 (or so)”.

Golf courses, just like hotels, are impossible to run with this kind of Damoclean sword hanging over them. 

“These circumstances are creating great uncertainty among the British about the decision to come or not to the Algarve”, said Correia da Silva.

Next Thursday will see the opening of the Portugal Masters (running till the following Sunday) at Vilamoura’s Victoria course, owned by the Dom Pedro group of hotels.  At least this will be attracting “some of the best players in Europe who at the moment don’t have many alternatives”, said Correio da Silva.

Dom Pedro’s director of hotels and golfing operations Paulo Mesquita added that what should be stressed is that despite all the restrictions and fears regarding Covid, the Algarve is still a marvellous place for any golfer to be.

“Golf is an individual sport where the risk of contagion is very low – and we have all the conditions to comply with DGS health directorate sanitary measures”, he told Expresso. 

It’s simply a question of ‘confidence’. Papers like the Telegraph would say this has been “destroyed for good” (click here), but operators have no option but to hold out for a miracle.

Meantime pressure continues in the UK to scrap what is widely considered a disastrous quarantine policy (it hasn’t stopped case numbers rising in UK) in favour of airport testing.

In Portugal, the government has said it is “extremely concerned” by the increase in case numbers. New ‘contingency measures’ are to be introduced from September 15 (but no one yet knows what they will entail), while “Covid meetings” between health chiefs, politicians and social partners (to discuss the evolution of the virus) will be resuming from Monday.   

natasha.donn@algarveresident.com