Saturday, January 15, 2011

Safety and security for tourists

The mass evacuation of tourists from Tunisia has been a timely reminder that Portugal in general, and the Algarve in particular, is a far safer place for holidaymakers than many competing destinations in North Africa and elsewhere.

Riots and violent demonstrations have severely disrupted the capital, Tunis, Hammamet, Douze and other places popular with tourists. This has lead to a state of national emergency, the ousting of widely hated President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali and, by the way, the ruination of a great many Thomas Cook, First Choice and independent holidays.

Tunisia was seen as one of a growing number of countries in North Africa and parts of Europe developing new tourist industries and doing their best to lure holidaymakers away from more traditional destinations such as southern Portugal.

The fact is that while some of these emerging tourist destinations have been offering cheaper holidays, lower prices usually mean lower quality and often inferior amenities and services.

Meanwhile, in the face of a slump in bookings due to the international economic crisis and unfavourable exchange rates, the Algarve tourist industry continues to try to keep costs as low as possible while maintaining high standards.

It is in the fields of national and regional security, plus mandatory standards of health and safety that Portugal can claim to be second to none. The Algarve is an important component in a country based on law and order, exuding genuine hospitality to visitors, especially those from its major market, Britain, with which it has a special relationship for centuries.

It is significant that while the Tunisians have just forced their president into exile, accusing him of heinous crimes against his own people, the Portuguese are preparing to re-elect their much-respected president to a second five-year term in office.

Portugal's fully-fledged revolution back in 1974 was characterised by carnations in gun barrels and no direct violence on the part of the revolutionaries. Tourism has developed hugely since then to become the Algarve's number one economic activity in the absence of any further serious political unrest, natural disasters or the climatic extremes that have dogged many other places.

During a visit at the beginning of the 19th century, the English romantic poet Robert Southey described the Algarve as 'Paradise', with a capital 'P'. Even without political suppression, racial tension, devastating earthquakes, mudslides, floods, oil spillages, volcanoes or war, a small 'p' seems sufficient in these days of global economic crisis.

From Britain alone, nearly 1.63 million visitors a year come to Portugal to relax. In its advice to travellers, the British Foreign & Commonwealth Office notes that “most visits are trouble-free” and “crime remains comparatively low”.

We mustn't gloat because of the misfortunes of others any more than we should be complacent about our good reputation for safety and security. But the events in Tunisia in recent days show yet again that, even amid fairly gloomy economic forecasts for 2011, things here could be a lot worse.

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