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FARO, Portugal — Since 1373, the English and Portuguese have stood together in what’s now the world’s longest surviving alliance.
In the past they have battled the French and Spanish: This week they came together in a common struggle for pandemic recovery.
Brits have been descending on Faro airport on Portugal’s south coast at a rate of 5,500 a day since foreign vacation restrictions were lifted Monday.
Freed from months of wintry lockdown, many are on a mission to soak up the sun and guzzle poolside cocktails.
“I’m so glad we made it,” thrilled Zoe Ryall, stepping off a flight from Birmingham on her first escape from the U.K. in over seven months. “It feels amazing. We’re going to just chill, get a suntan and have a few nice drinks.”
Stakes are higher for Portugal’s legions of hospitality workers: for them, reviving tourism is a battle for economic survival.
“It’s been terrible. We’ve had to let so many people go, and without tourism there’s nothing else here,” said Nuno Santo, reception manager at a hotel that’s had no guests since September. “I can’t wait to get back to work, this has been going on for too long.”
During a few deadly weeks in January, Portugal was the world’s worst place for COVID-19. But after the government reimposed a tight lockdown, infection rates tumbled and remain among Europe’s lowest.
That earned it a place on a “green list” of safe destinations when the U.K. government ended a five-month ban on overseas vacations on Monday.
With Spain, Greece and Italy and other favorite sunspots still off limits, the Brits have been pouring into Portugal. Faro airport, serving the southern Algarve region, received 17 flights from the U.K. Monday, with almost as many again divided among other Portuguese airports.
The influx could not have come soon enough for one of the world’s most tourism-dependent economies.
Foreign visitors to Portugal slumped by more than 92 percent in the first quarter of this year compared to the same period in 2020, when the pandemic was just beginning to bite.
That’s seriously bad news in a country where tourism accounts for over 16 percent of total revenue.
COVID’s crushing of tourism wiped €16 billion from the economy last year, accounting for three-quarters of Portugal’s 5.4 percent economic shrinkage.
Nowhere has been as hard hit as the Algarve, the sun-soaked region at Europe’s southwestern tip whose golden beaches are Portugal’s biggest attraction. Regional unemployment in March was up 54 percent over the year.
“When things were at their worst, we were helping 150 families … they had nothing,” said Sarah Chamberlain, a volunteer at a charity mostly run by British expats to help pandemic-stricken tourism workers.
“Because so many were on temporary, seasonal contracts, they weren’t eligible for government support,” Chamberlain explained as she helped pack grocery bags with pasta, tinned food, diapers and other essentials at a distribution center in the small coastal city of Tavira.
“It’s getting better now. This morning we’re only delivering to 35 families,” she said Monday.
Getting ahead of rival hotspots
Improvement came after Portugal began easing its domestic lockdown in March. It now has restaurants, museums and theaters open, buoying domestic demand.
Authorities hope last week’s decision to reopen airports to vacationers from the U.K and most European Union countries will revive the tourism-based economy, without importing more COVID.
“This is without doubt a key opportunity for the destination to capture new visitors and to set ourselves apart from rival destinations,” João Fernandes, president of the Algarve Tourism Board, said in a statement.
Brits are also pouring into other Portuguese destinations, like the Atlantic island of Madeira and the historic capital Lisbon.
The northern city of Porto is set to receive 12,000 English soccer fans for the European Champions League final between Manchester City and Chelsea on May 29, after the U.K. government placed Turkey, the match’s original host, on its COVID red list.
Portugal still bans nonessential travel from EU countries with coronavirus rates above 500 cases per 100,000. For now, that should keep out Dutch, Swedish, Croatian, Lithuanian and Cypriot tourists.
However, two flights from Amsterdam and another from Eindhoven were among those landing in Faro on Tuesday. Their passengers should be isolating “at home or in a place indicated by the health authorities” for 14 days after arrival.
Other EU travelers and Brits don’t have to undergo isolation on arrival but do have to present proof of a negative COVID-19 test taken within three days of departure.
Prime Minister António Costa said that strikes the right balance between opening up the economy and mitigating concerns over the appearance of the new Indian COVID-19 strain in the U.K. As visitor numbers surge, the industry wants tourism staff pushed to the front of Portugal’s vaccine line.
Despite its good performance, Portugal is not completely free of internal virus risks.
Its nationwide seven-day average of 37 cases per million is the EU’s lowest, but there are localized areas of concern, including in and around the Algarve where outbreaks have been concentrated among migrant farm laborers.
Arrivals at Faro airport on Monday were handed welcome kits including a free mask and an explanation of ongoing health restrictions. They include requirements to wear masks in public spaces, limits on the numbers around restaurant tables and social distancing on beaches.
Despite the concerns, Algarve tourism professionals are confident the region is on the road to long-term recovery this time.
“With Portugal’s entry on the green list, we’re expecting business will grow exponentially,” said Carlos Conceição, owner relations manager at Monte Rei Golf and Country Club, a swanky resort with sweeping views of the Atlantic.
“With the vaccination, people will feel safer,” he said. “By 2022, I believe we’ll have a full recovery, with numbers getting close to what they were before the pandemic.”
Beyond the economic impact, the easing of travel restrictions is bringing family reunions for the estimated 250,000 Portuguese living in the U.K., the sixth biggest foreign community there, and over 34,000 Brits who comprise Portugal’s third-largest immigrant group.
“We’ve got family here, we’re going to be seeing our grandchildren for the first time in months,” smiled David Noblett, who flew into Faro with his wife on Tuesday. “It’s smashing.”
Noblett arrived from Manchester on Ryanair, the Irish low-cost airline which posted a year-on-year loss of €815 million Monday after the pandemic slashed its traffic by 81 percent.
Europe’s biggest airline, Ryanair had nine flights for Faro scheduled Wednesday from six different English airports. Last week, it announced 19 new weekly flights from Scotland to Portugal from May 24 to take 20,000 passengers after the government in Edinburgh joined the U.K. central government in green-listing Portugal.
Although the overseas travel restrictions have been leading Brits to vacation on their own seaside, the Algarve offers some obvious advantages: Clacton-on-Sea in Essex endured rain and a high of 13℃ Tuesday while Faro’s beaches baked at close to 30℃ under a sky of unbroken blue.
Portugal’s tourism market was diversifying amid rapid growth ahead of the pandemic, notably thanks to expanding numbers of French, U.S. and German visitors. But Brits, who “discovered” the Algarve in the 1960s, are still the mainstay.
In 2019 they contributed €3.27 billion of Portugal’s direct tourism earnings total of €18.3 billion.
A lot of sterling will have to flow through the Algarve’s bars, restaurants and golf courses to get revenues back close to that, but many flying in this week seem determined to make a start.
“It’s amazing to be here, but I’ve got to dash, we’ve got a table booked for lunch,” said Lindsey Watts from Cheltenham as she headed out of Faro airport. “What am I going to do here? Get drunk hopefully, ha-ha, typical Brit.”
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