When you think of Portugal, with its sandy coves, crystalline waters and craggy shores, chances are you’re thinking of the Algarve. This is the country’s most popular tourist region – and justifiably so.
Portugal’s fast-acting response to the coronavirus has saved lives and ensured the country can start thinking ahead to reviving the travel sector and its economy. So what does this mean for the Algarve, and will there be a summer season in 2020? What will it look like? We chatted with João Fernandes, President of the Algarve Tourism Bureau, to find out how the board was keeping in touch with travellers virtually, and what plans are in the pipeline for when travel returns to Portuguese shores.
Q: I’ve seen some exciting activity online focused on the Algarve and Portugal more generally: videos and photos showcasing the best of region; Visit Portugal’s #CantSkipHope campaign and video reminding us to keep dreaming; and live-streamed yoga classes at the Campus at Quinta do Lago. Could you tell us a bit more about your virtual campaign, and how you’ve been keeping in touch with travellers online during Covid-19?
A: The Portugal Tourism Board launched the virtual campaign in March. Whilst people were in lockdown it was important to keep the holiday dream alive – and we wanted to keep Algarve top of mind with inspirational content. The message was that for everyone’s good: it is better to stop travelling for now; it’s time to stop reset, recentre and refocus. And the incredible photographic landscapes of Portugal and the Algarve that you see in the #CantSkipHope campaign will still be here, ready for visitors to experience once the pandemic is over and it’s safe to travel once more.
We also launched a hashtag campaign on social media,immediately after the start of the lockdown on 16 March. On Facebook (@algarvetourism) we promoted the message #DontCancelPostpone, as we were keen to keep travellers’ holiday dreams alive for later in the year and to encourage them to postpone plans rather than cancelling altogether.
Q: Are there some positive news stories coming out of the Algarve during these strange times? Could you give me any examples?
A: It has been fantastic to see so many community-minded projects. For example, top chefs Rui Silvestre (Michelin starred Vistas restaurant) and Noélia Jerónimo (a famous chef in the Algarve) are preparing two hundred daily meals for people in need during the crisis. Thanks to a team of eight who have all volunteered to help, the meals are prepared every day in the kitchen of the Tavira Red Cross Support Centre.
Another example is one of our most exclusive resorts, Quinta do Lago. At the start of the Covid-19 crisis, Quinta do Lago donated 50,000 EUR to local hospitals in Faro, Portimão and Lagos to supply as much essential medical equipment as possible to the public hospitals. This equipment included CT scanners, ventilators, testing kids, heart-rate monitors and PPE. This donation formed part of a wider campaign led by Quinta do Lago residents called “Flattening the Curve”: over 500,000 EUR has now been raised through their GoFundMe page. The money is going to the Algarve Biomedical Centre (ABC), the consortium that is leading many of the region’s initiatives to contain the pandemic.
More generally, local communities have given assistance to the most vulnerable (elderly, bedridden, people with reduced mobility), assuring the provision of daily essentials, meals or medicines to their homes. Many restaurants, meanwhile, converted their activity to focus on take aways. Local producers established short consumption chains with new forms of distribution… revealing the ability to adapt.
Q: What does lockdown look like in the Algarve and Portugal more generally at the moment?
A: At the moment we are making a lot of plans for re-opening. The government has now set out a timetable for the gradual re-start of economic and social activity, which will be phased in and reassessed on a fortnightly basis. Social distancing and extraordinary hygiene measures will remain in place during this period. A calendar up to the beginning of June has been adopted so far. The objective is to allow business to implement the many new hygiene measures and familiarize themselves with the new protocols.
The Portugal Tourism Board has also launched a “Safe & Clean” stamp, which certifies and gives training to businesses who comply with the new measures. Algarve Tourism is preparing a guide, along with the Portugal Tourism Board and other national entities to set, define and guide businesses through this new reality with concrete measures for hotels, restaurants, beaches, water parks, golfs, rent a car, marinas, camping etc.
Q: When do you envisage tourism starting to return? What plans do you have for the summer season?
A: We anticipate that the domestic tourism market will start coming back from late May with many hotels, restaurants and cafés opening then with strict hygiene procedures in place. Many have already adopted the “Clean & Safe” protocols that we have announced (more on that later). The timing of international tourists’ return will depend on flights to the region. The situation is changing every day so it’s difficult to predict, although we are receiving very positive news from our main issuing markets on their intention to return to the Algarve, who have been reassured in the measures we are taking in the prevention and control of the pandemic.
Q: Could you tell me a little bit more about “Clean & Safe” stamp scheme? What will it mean for businesses and travellers?
A: The scheme allows tourism companies and hotels to advertise themselves as a “Clean & Safe” establishment. We have created a stamp to distinguish tourist companies that are compliant with hygiene and cleaning requirements for the prevention and control of Covid-19 and other possible infections. This recognition will be valid for a period of one year and it requires the implementation of an internal protocol according to the recommendations of the General Directorate of Health of Portugal, for the necessary sanitation required to avoid risks of contagion, and guarantees the operation of tourist activities in safe conditions. For this purpose, in addition to the implementation of measures such as the disinfection of spaces and equipment, businesses will have to acquire Personal Protective Equipment for staff, adapt infrastructure and signage, amongst other measures. A plan scheduling training for companies adhering to the seal is in motion. The ultimate goal of these measures is to reinforce security at the destination, as well as the confidence of the tourist.
Q: How does this differ from the “Good Practices – Covid Free” guide for the Algarve? What key players will the guide include?
A: The “Good Practices - Covid Free” guide is part of the “Clean & Safe” scheme, and is a guide for different tourism entities on best practice procedures that should be adopted in order to be considered “Clean & Safe”. The guide will include hotels, restaurants, bars, beaches, water parks, golf courses, car rental, campsites, marinas and travel agencies.
Q: How could hotel stays change as a result of Covid-19?
A: Hotels are working on new measures now, but I think we can expect to see a lot more cleaning taking place, hand sanitizers at all entrance and exit points, virtual check-ins, buffets being replaced by table service, mini bars being emptied, limits on numbers in confined spaces such as elevators, and hotel staff wearing personal protection clothing such as masks and gloves. Hotels will be keen to still offer a high level of service – it will just need adapting to keep visitors and staff safe.
Q: Travellers traditionally flock to the Algarve for the quintessential beach experience. Will we be likely to see new rules for the beach?
Rules are currently being defined for access to beaches, which will be issued by the Portuguese Environment Agency shortly. They will allow the use of these spaces, whilst guaranteeing safety for visitors and workers. It will be nothing that prevents a vacationer from enjoying a nice sunny day on the sand or an appetizing dip in the sea, but taking care of the necessary rules applicable to the spaces and collaborators supporting the beaches (parking, access, help stations, restaurants, bars or umbrellas and sunbeds). There will also be a strong information campaign and call for the adoption of responsible behaviour aimed at beachgoers.
Q: What other differences should travellers expect when returning to the Algarve this year? For instance, could restaurants and attractions be shut?
A: It’s a rapidly changing scenario, but restaurants will start to reopen from 18 May, so long as they keep to fifty percent capacity – but bars and nightclubs will remain shut until the end of May. Beaches are open for walks from the 4 May and will open for bathing on the 1 June – with all the beach-safety measures and support in place.
With regards to other key attractions in the region, Zoomarine will open in June, Slide & Splash mid-June and Aquashow water park in July. Park capacity will be reduced, however, with compulsory use of masks in closed areas (restaurants, stores). The dates may change according to the evolution of the pandemic and new recommendations.
Q: What are your predictions for the tourist industry in the Algarve for the rest of the year and into 2021?
A: We hope that in the last quarter of the year, we will be able to reach the level of demand that we usually experience in this period. Tourist numbers in the winter–autumn season have been growing – in doing so, helping to mitigate seasonality in the region – due to the Algarve’s efforts and commitment to developing a strong, diverse touristic experience (with golf, natural, cultural and heritage tourism and nautical activities all on offer).
Q: What lessons would you like to see ordinary people and travellers taking with them once the pandemic has passed?
A: The first lesson we all learned from the way this pandemic spread and spared no one, is that we are much more alike than different. That solidarity and cooperation are starting points, not only to overcome the catastrophes of the moment, but also in the future to be more prepared for new challenges. That sustainability is definitely the best competitive factor for the development of any territory. As a Portuguese saying goes: “prevention is better than the cure”. And all this applies when we are at home, or when we travel.