When we formed as Associação Safe Communities Algarve in 2012 (subsequently Safe Communities Portugal), I chose the name carefully because a “safe community” is fundamental in enjoying a high quality of life, including all the economic and social benefits that it brings.
Safety, of course, is dependent on many factors, such as the crime level, rural fires and now, as we have seen, Covid-19.
One of the reasons that people have traditionally chosen to live and visit the Algarve is because it is a safe place.
Safety and tourism
The recent travel advice to Portugal from some countries resulting from Covid-19, although aimed at protecting travellers themselves as well as their own residents upon return, does inevitably send a signal that Portugal, including the Algarve, has somehow become less safe.
Whereas we are not in a position to question the rationale adopted by these countries, it does beg the question of whether there should be a more standardised approach, in other words, common criteria which more uniformly identifies the risk. As it stands, each country applies its own criteria – but the disease is the same.
What makes the Algarve safe?
Firstly, it is important to acknowledge that, according to many surveys, “safety and security” are some of the main reasons that lead people to choose a certain destination. The World Tourism Organisation stated this 24 years ago and it is still true today.
The Algarve has long been seen as a safe destination and a tremendous amount of work goes into trying to keep it that way. This is certainly the case with crime which, despite a nominal increase in 2019, has decreased by over 20% in the last 10 years – violent crime even more so.
In terms of fires, there is an inherent risk in many hot and dry countries, but the fact is that last year the number of fires decreased by over 40%. There is also a greater acknowledgement of the importance of sound and effective communication for tourists concerning rural fire awareness and prevention in languages they can understand. Portugal is better prepared for this than ever before.
Also important has been the more recent involvement of the tourism authorities in safety and security. As we have always said at Safe Communities, if these messages are sent across in a positive way, it will not deter tourism but conversely encourage it – because people will feel safe. A safe country sends the right signals overseas and encourages tourism.
Dealing with people’s perception of the risk and prevalence of Covid-19 is not dissimilar to that of crime or indeed rural fires. Often, perception can cause more social alarm than the actual situation itself. Indeed, when there is much negativity, say on social media because people are unaware of the facts, people become more disillusioned and negativity spreads.
This is why it is important in a crisis to deal with this objectively, avoid speculation, ascertain the full picture and then make decisions.
In the case of Covid-19, Portugal has done a great job in my opinion. The laws and strategies that the Portuguese government put into place at the early stages have served the country well. There was clarity and the introduction of the State of Emergency, which included laws to ensure compliance. This has not been the same in some other countries with frequently changing guidelines that people have ignored, leading to a total disrespect concerning social distancing and the wearing of masks.
The outbreak in the Lagos area due to an illegal party coupled with the problems in certain parts of Lisbon are certainly not typical of the country as a whole. The fact that to date, after four months, around 800 have contracted the disease in the Algarve, nearly 70% recovered and only around 10 are in hospital gives me the impression that the Algarve is a safe place.
Like unreported crime, there is much about Covid-19 that is unknown and the extent of the disease in all countries is probably higher than the recorded figures. This is why, in my personal opinion, when assessing risk, it is important to take into account other factors as well such as the initiatives a country takes in reducing the risk of contracting the disease in the first place.
For instance, Portugal gained an international travel award for its ‘Clean & Safe’ seal, the involvement of national youth associations in helping people and the tremendous work of the ABC centre in their testing programmes, which certainly have a gone a long way in controlling these outbreaks. Also, the transparency which Portugal has adopted in its testing programme by using the asymptomatic approach, thereby identifying cases which may not have been identified in other countries that do not use this strategy to the extent of Portugal.
So, the question to ask when choosing a safe holiday as far as Covid-19 is concerned is simply this – “What are the chances of me and my family catching the disease whilst on holiday in Portugal?”
Concerning Covid-19, my conclusion is that the Algarve is safe. The reasons for this being that the numbers are low, compliance is high, people are wearing their facemasks, hygiene is well practised in accordance with long-standing government guidelines and social distancing is widely practised.
To keep it that way when tourists do arrive in larger numbers, please respect our rules and do not undue what has taken a lot of sacrifice for us to achieve.
So, despite the restrictions imposed by various corridors and traffic lights (which blink from time to time), people should choose a holiday here in the Algarve; that is if they want safety and security, plus, of course, the welcoming nature of the Portuguese, great food and wine, and its great weather, to name but a few.
By David Thomas
David Thomas is a former Assistant Commissioner of the Hong Kong Police, consultant to INTERPOL and the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime.
In 2011, he founded Safe Communities Algarve to help the authorities and the community prevent crime. It is now registered as Associação SCP Safe Communities Portugal, the first national association of its type in Portugal.