Saturday, January 1, 2011

Ten reasons to cheer the New Year

Many people are giving 2011 a cool reception. For starters, most of us can forget about it being a prosperous New Year, but here are ten reasons why we in Portugal can look forward with some optimism.

Strong leadership On 21st January the Portuguese will go to the polls to elect their next President. It's virtually certain that the incumbent, Aníbal Cavaco Silva, will be elected to a second term. He has just the sort of experience needed for the job at a difficult time like this. Born in Boliquieme in the Algarve, Cavaco Silva is an economist who graduated in Lisbon and gained a doctorate at the University of York in the UK. Having worked as a professor and held a senior position in the Bank of Portugal, he entered politics after the 1974 Portuguese Revolution and became leader of the centre-right Social Democratic Party. From 1985 to 1995 he served two terms as Prime Minister. The most recent opinion poll gave Cavaco Silva, aged 71, a comfortable lead over his nearest rivals, the ruling Socialist Party's Manuel Alegre, and Fernando Nobre, an independent.

Social togetherness “We are, without a doubt, a united region, a region which provides conditions so that everyday we are able to celebrate love, brotherhood, faith and the precious gift of life.” So said the Civil Governor of the Algarve, Isilda Gomes, in a Christmas message. Everyone living in the region - those who have come here to pursue their personal or professional goals, as well as those who were born here - are Algarvians, she said. In her New Year's message she spoke of “freedom, equality, brotherhood and social justice” for all. Well aware of the new austerity measures and worsening financial hardship, she emphasised the importance of “understanding, mutual help and voluntary sharing”. Bravo!

Speaking out Citizens are increasingly expressing opposition to things they believe are detrimental to society. Top of the non-violent protest agenda in the Algarve in the early part of the year will be a defiant 'no' to government plans to start imposing tolls on the region's east-west motorway in April. Users argue that tolls would further harm the economy and cause more fatal accidents by pushing more traffic on to the notoriously dangerous 125 main road. Popular national petitions include demands to cut food wastage, reduce the number of parliamentarians and abolish bullfights. All the major petitions can be viewed in English as well as Portuguese at

Renewable energy Portugal, a small country, has emerged as a giant in the field of alternative energy. The government intends to continue strongly supporting solar, hydro, wind and geothermal projects, while much bigger and supposedly more developed countries are still bogged down in polluting the planet with fossil fuels. The world's first commercial wave farm began operating off the northwest coast. The world's largest solar plant is located in the Alentejo,which gets more sunshine per square metre than anywhere else in Europe. Nearly half of the country's electricity now comes from renewable resources, a 28% increase over the past five years. The trend is set to be enthusiastically sustained through 2011 and beyond.

Electric driving As with renewable energy, Portugal is taking the lead in zero-pollution electric cars. The Nissan Leaf, the first completely electric car aimed at the mass market, will be given its European launch in Portugal this month. It has already been declared “European Car of the Year”. Nissan will soon be assembling batteries for the Leaf in Portugal and the government has promised to establish a nationwide network of charging points. The envisaged infrastructure will include 13,000 wind-powered charging stations, a swipe card access system and capacity for 750,000 vehicles by 2020. The plan is to make the network compatible with any make of electric car. The Portuguese government is working closely with private enterprise on all of this.

No water worries While homes in Northern Ireland, of all places, have been without water for days on end recently, and summer hose-pipe restrictions have become almost normal elsewhere in the sodden British Isles, no such problems are likely this year in southern Portugal, a Mediterranean climatic zone with a low annual rainfall restricted to the cooler months. So far this winter, in a repeat of last, it has been tipping it down. The reservoirs have never been fuller and gardens have never been greener. And we don't get freezing conditions that cause our pipes to leak.

Washed out Another reason why gardeners welcome lots of rain at this time of year is because it severely curtails the development of Processionary Moths, one of the Algarve's most wondrous creatures. The moths lay their eggs in pine trees. The caterpillars come down from their hairy nests among the pine needles in February and March and walk head-to-tail in lines of up to 300 individuals to find suitable soil in which to bury themselves, form cocoons and pupate so that the whole life cycle can start again. The caterpillars are so voracious that they can eat enough foliage to kill a mature pine tree. If disturbed, the marching caterpillars release minute toxic hairs that can cause extreme skin and eye irritations in humans and worse in inquisitive domestic animals.

Property prices The market can't get any worse in 2011, can it? Actually, the past twelve months haven't been as bad as the media has been suggesting, according to Stephen Anderson, managing director of the Portugal-based group of property investors, Infinito Real. His company found that while bargains existed in 2010, this was actually a small part of the property market and anything with a unique location still held its value. The latter half of the year saw an upturn in clients looking seriously, but they had to contend with an increase in mortgage rates and a tightening of the lending criteria. He doesn't expect things to change dramatically in 2011.“It’s likely we will see more of the same, albeit with less drastic price reductions, as those most hit by the economic crisis have either sold up or walked away.” 

Wine noises Portugal's wine producers have been strongly advised to become more assertive this year. This was one of the main messages to emerge last month from the country's first major international wine conference in Oporto. Four hundred and fifty of the world's leading authorities on wine seemed to agree with the UK wine critic and author on Portuguese wines, Charles Metcalfe, who pointed out that “in this noisy world, Portugal’s quiet message is overwhelmed by most of the others.” Metcalfe suggested that one of the ways to overcome this is for various Portuguese sectors - wine, gastronomy, sports, tourism and so on – to work together. Since most UK tourists think of Algarve golf and beaches when asked about Portugal, it was deemed a good idea to open tasting rooms in all popular tourism locations.

The secret's out After years of official dithering, there seems to be a growing insistence in tourism circles that something quite radical needs to be done to change the Algarve's image and make it more competitive in the international marketplace. Harking on with advertising slogans about this being Europe's 'best kept secret' or even its 'most famous secret' is not the way forward. Package holidays are a thing of the past and nowadays there is a lot more to the Algarve than 'sun and sea'. After successive years of decline, the region's number one economic activity desperately needs – and hopefully will get – a major shake-up in 2011 to the advantage of all involved.



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