The Algarve is back in business! Business owners, tourism officials and hoteliers are celebrating the long-awaited return of British tourists to the region, a moment which arrived just in time to “save” the summer from further doom and gloom.
Thousands of British holidaymakers arrived at Faro Airport on Monday, the day that Portugal reopened to “non-essential travel”. Around 25,000 travellers are expected to have arrived in the Algarve by the end of the week.
President Marcelo Rebelo de Sousa has already described the occasion as the first step towards the recovery of Portugal’s economy, while the media frenzy at Faro Airport on Monday was testament to the importance of these travellers to the region’s emergence from the Covid-19 crisis.
Arriving Brits were greeted not only with warm weather but also by dozens of reporters eager to hear about the “excitement” of finally being able to enjoy a sunny holiday in the Algarve.
Algarve tourism board (RTA) staff, including its president João Fernandes, were also at the airport to warmly welcome the UK visitors.
“We love the Algarve and have our friends here,” said British couple Eugene and Gaby, who had just arrived from London’s Heathrow Airport.
“We had been trying to return for some time because we’ve been coming on holiday to the Algarve for 20 years. We missed the winter because we are usually here between January and March, and we returned as soon as we had the chance,” said the couple, who own a house in Alvor and are expecting to stay here for around 75 days.
Meanwhile, Marianne and Cheero had booked trips to the Algarve and Madeira several months ago and were waiting to see which destination would ‘open up’ first.
They chose the Algarve due to the “amazing weather, its history, culture and safety”.
The couple will be staying in Faro and are planning to visit Tavira and possibly Peniche, north of Lisbon.
“We are very happy to be here and very thankful as well. Look at this sunshine,” they said.
Tracy and Jerry had not planned as far ahead as Marianne and Cheero.
“We booked our flight on Friday as soon as we heard we could come over. It was just enough time to undergo a (Covid-19) test before travelling,” said the couple, who will be staying in Vilamoura.
“We had been here before, we liked it and had fun,” they said, adding that they will also be returning in July.
New chapter for tourism
As Algarve tourism chief João Fernandes pointed out, the return of the Algarve’s most faithful visitors turns the page on one of the darkest chapters of the region’s (and the country’s) recent history.
“As we all know, the Algarve is especially marred by unemployment, given its dependence on the tourism sector,” he told reporters at the airport, adding that employers are already seeking to hire again.
“For me, this is one of the most positive signs we have seen,” he said.
But there’s more good news, as Fernandes believes the Algarve can become the main holiday destination for Brits during the UK’s half term holiday season between May 25 and July 6.
“We are practically the only destination available until the end of May, and we are expecting a great presence (of Brits) during that time,” the tourism chief said.
This unique set of circumstances is also bringing new holidaymakers to the Algarve, and Fernandes is confident that this is an opportunity to “woo” them into becoming returning visitors.
“Some tourists chose the Algarve/Portugal simply because there was no other choice. They would not normally visit us.
“And then there are others who have been coming here for 10 years or more, and others who come here every two to three months and only hadn’t visited sooner due to the restrictions,” said Fernandes.
Meanwhile, hotels in the region are also finally seeing some light at the end of the tunnel.
Elidérico Viegas, president of the Algarve hoteliers’ association (AHETA), was crystal clear about just how important British travellers are to the region.
“We are expecting a much better summer than last year’s in terms of hotel and tourist establishment occupation levels following the opening of travel corridors between the Algarve and UK,” he told the Resident.
As Viegas explained, this is good news for the summer as well as for the upcoming golf season starting in September and the so-called “low-season” into 2022.
For rent-a-car companies, all it took was a matter of hours to start noticing a huge increase in activity.
“There’s no comparison. We’re seeing a huge spike in business. Yesterday (Sunday) we had around 50-60 clients from many different countries. Today we have had around 400-500, mostly from the UK,” Ana Varela from Yor Car Algarve told the Resident on Monday.
The business spike had not yet been felt by airport transfer company and travel agency Bravotur on Monday, although managing partner Anabela Luz told us that the number of bookings for June has started increasing since Portugal’s decision to reopen to tourism.
Restaurants and bars breathe a sigh of relief
Restaurant and bar owners in the Algarve are also noticing business picking up, and while most of them told us that these are still “early days”, they are generally much more optimistic about this summer than last year.
“We haven’t seen a big difference yet in terms of foot traffic here,” Aaron Toner from Harry’s Bar in Carvoeiro told us. “But we’re definitely expecting a better summer than last year. I know many people who own properties here who have already said they are returning for this summer.”
Also in Carvoeiro, the owner of A Galé restaurant said that while the town is still “quiet”, she is already noticing a difference in reservations for next week.
“The truth is that it will be impossible to have a worse summer than the last,” Carla Pina told us, adding that while last year she chose to not even open her other restaurant Folhas de Louro, she is planning to open it at the end of the month.
Further west in Portimão, businesses are also predicting a good summer.
“After all the uncertainty of this year and the last-minute go-ahead to welcome tourists, you can really feel the positive vibe in Alvor that the summer of 2021 can finally begin,” said Kate Fitzsimmons, owner of Sunset Bar in Alvor.
“It’s lovely to see the empty streets gradually filling up with visitors and we look forward to enjoying a busy fun-filled season,” she added.
Meanwhile at Praia da Rocha’s F restaurant, there has already been a noticeable increase in the number of reservations made by Brits for the months of June and July, owner Ricardo Gomes told us.
“I’m an optimist, so to be able to reopen now after being closed for months fills us with hope for the summer,” he said.
In fact, Portugal’s Secretary of State for Tourism has predicted that this year’s tourist season will grow between 20% and 30% compared to last year.
“The outlook is positive,” said Rita Marques. “We had a very difficult 2020 and, without doubt, this year will also be very difficult given that we are already in May and almost halfway through the year,” she said.
Due to the “recent opening of the UK and with the market reacting positively to this news, we are confident that we will recover some of the activity that we lost last year,” she said.
Despite the general optimism, the truth is that the number of Brits who have arrived so far has yet to make a considerable difference to businesses.
As Gary Search from the Fat Cats on the Marina Bar and Restaurant at Albufeira Marina told us, “we’re waiting for the taps to open, but for now they’re still firmly shut.
“Monday was even quieter than it has been usually. Tuesday was a bit better, but we’ve yet to see a difference and we’re hoping it’s going to happen soon.”
Further to the east, Vilamoura Marina’s News restaurant has already started welcoming some Brits.
“There has been a minimal increase in customers and a bit more movement, but we’re expecting things to really start improving on May 29,” owner Isabel Almeida told the Resident.
“We were lucky to actually have had a good summer last year, and we’re hoping this summer will follow suit,” she said.
“One thing I’ve noticed is that we seem to be welcoming Brits with a larger spending power. The crisis definitely seems to be keeping those on reduced budgets away,” Almeida added.
Indeed, many have pointed out how the high costs of having to undergo Covid-19 tests may be keeping some tourists away.
Earlier this month, the International Air Transport Association (IATA) called on governments to ensure that the costs of Covid-19 testing “don’t put travel out of reach for individuals and families.
“To facilitate an efficient restart of international travel, Covid-19 testing must be affordable as well as timely, widely available and effective,” the association said.
Portugal top destination for expats, study finds
Portugal has ranked in the top-five of several rankings in a survey called ‘The Best & Worst Places for Expats in 2021’ carried out by InterNations, described as the “largest global community for people living abroad”.
Not only is Portugal considered the fifth best expat destination in the world, it is also ranked second in terms of expats “feeling at home” (Mexico grabbed the top spot) and third in terms of “best quality of life”.
By MICHAEL BRUXO
Photos: Maria Simiris/Open Media Group