Carvoeiro beach - Photo Inês Lopes/OPEN MEDIA GROUP

Tourism on tenterhooks as Britons warned “it could be too soon” for summer holidays

Portuguese tourism is on tenterhooks as the prospects for 2021 remain hugely uncertain.

Says a report by SIC television, 50% of Germans have already said they will not be travelling abroad this year, while in UK there are concerns that the government will be continuing to discourage foreign travel after the May 17 ‘deadline’ it previously intimated.

As secretary of state for tourism Rita Marques told the BBC last month, Portugal is focused on being ready to receive Brits – who represent a huge slice of its foreign tourist market – from May.

But if families are being advised not to travel, it won’t make a great deal of difference.

Elidérico Veigas, president of AHETA (the Algarve’s hoteliers association) is clearly pessimistic. He has told SIC there “while we can’t bring the ‘sanitary problem’ it will be difficult to maintain a regular flow of tourists from one country to another, and between countries”.

The solution, in his opinion, is for Portugal to ‘do its homework’ and ensure it is seen by other countries (governments) as a safe travel destination. 

But he still ‘fears’ that many hotels in the Algarve this year will simply stay closed this year.

The situation for Britons meantime is still far from ‘decided’. 

Press speculation on a possible ban on foreign travel began on Saturday when Dr Mike Tildesley of the Scientific Pandemic Influenza modelling group that feeds into Sage (the government’s scientific advisors) said overseas holidays this summer (for Brits) were “extremely unlikely”.

Professor Chris Whitty – England’s Chief Medical Officer – was said to be “pushing for a more cautious approach”.

The political position is that a government task force is due to report by mid-April on whether it is safe to reopen borders from May 17.

England’s defence secretary Ben Wallace has stressed that it would be “potentially risky” to book a holiday abroad before the task force issues its report.

According to the Times “in a sign the government believes that lifting the ban in May is unlikely, Wallace refused to rule out extending it and insisted they (the government) would “play it by ear”.

Reading between the lines, what seems most probable is that the British government will operate a kind of ‘traffic light’ system over foreign travel, similar to the one operated last summer.

In other words, 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 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 ten 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.”

Why the reticence to green-light travel, given the UK’s stellar vaccine roll-out?

This is the ‘huge issue’: the reticence of the British government stems from fears of ‘more aggressive variants’ circulating in Europe that could compromise the immunity conferred by current vaccines.

At this point, we are told, these are just fears: but they come from the experts, not from politicians.

Says the Times, there are signs that the cabinet is split – between those that think the government is being too pessimistic (if it does go with the experts’ advice) and those that think the vaccines should be given the benefit of the doubt.

There is even the ‘fear’ that this kind of prohibition could actually dissuade people from taking their vaccines (on the basis that if they are not allowed to travel, or ‘open up’ further, what is the point?)

With regard to European tourists, the issue is slightly different: Europe hasn’t managed to vaccinate its citizens to any ‘satisfactory’ level, thus fears in Europe are that unvaccinated citizens could be putting themselves (and others) at risk from leaving their own countries.

As northern member states are registering a resurgence of the virus – and some countries are reintroducing lockdowns – nothing is certain. 

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