Saturday, May 8, 2021

Green light for English tourists

The Azores and Madeira along with mainland Portugal have been officially given the green light by the British government for holiday visits when England lifts its overseas travel ban on May 17. 

Only 12 countries worldwide, most of them distant, have been included in the least restrictive category on the UK’s so-called green, amber and red ‘traffic light system’.

The announcement has come as a huge relief to the vital Portuguese tourism sector that has long been at a standstill because of the COVID-19 international lockdowns.

Portugal and the autonomous regions are considered COVID ‘low risk’ and thus among the safest destinations.

The only other green list places on relative short flight routes from the UK are Gibraltar, Iceland, the Faroe Islands and Israel. The rest, including Australia and New Zealand are in the far south.

Spain, Italy, France and the United States, all hugely popular destinations, are among the many countries left off the green list. They are considered higher risk and rated amber.

As Portugal is the first Mediterranean destination to make it on to the green list, the number of flight and accommodation bookings immediately began to surge.

For now, the new arrangement only applies to England. The arrangement will be reviewed every three weeks. Decisions on overseas travel from other parts of the United Kingdom are expected soon

Travellers to green list countries will have to take two COVID tests, before leaving and one within two days of returning, but if the tests prove negative, travellers will not have to quarantine. Those returning from amber list countries will have to self-isolate.

On the downside of all this, airlines and travel agencies say the traffic light system is over-cautious and more countries should be on the green list. It has also been pointed out that holidaying prices could considerably increase and passengers are likely to face delays at airports because of extra COVID paperwork checking.

 UK transport minister Grant Shapps said on Friday: “Today marks our first step in our cautious return to international travel, with measures designed above all else to protect public health and ensure we don’t throw away the hard fought gains we’ve all strived to earn this year.”



Saturday, May 1, 2021

Press freedom under pressure

The United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres promotes World Press Freedom Day annually on 3rd May to raise awareness of the fundamental importance of press freedom and remind governments of their duty to respect and uphold the right to freedom of expression enshrined under the1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

“Journalists and media workers are crucial in helping us make informed decisions,” the former Portuguese prime minister pointed out last May: “As the world fights the COVID-19 pandemic, those decisions can make the difference between life and death. On World Press Freedom Day we call on governments - and others – to guarantee that journalists can do their job throughout the COVID-19 pandemic and beyond.

Secretary-General Guterres said last week that, “during the pandemic and other crises, including the climate emergency, journalists and media workers are helping us navigate a fast-changing and often overwhelming landscape of information, while addressing dangerous inaccuracies and falsehoods. In too many countries they run too many personal risks, including new restrictions, censorship, abuse, harassment, detention and even death simply for doing their job - and the situation continues to worsen.”

The European Federation of Journalists and its members have observed clear deterioration of press freedom in Europe. It quotes a report of the Council of Europe published last week saying that the number of physical attacks on journalists and media workers as well as the cases of harassment and intimidation reached a record level in 2020.

Portugal adopted the right to freedom of expression after the ‘Carnation’ Revolution of 25th April 1974. For centuries before that freedom of expression was controlled by the Catholic Church, a succession of monarchs and the Estado Novo political dictatorship. This country’s constitution now extends freedom of expression to all media.

The Reporters Without Borders press freedom index showing the independence of the media and how safe and free it is for journalists around the world to do their job shows a continuing improvement in Portugal’s status from 2013 to 2021. Portugal is currently 9th in the world rankings, after Norway, Finland, Sweden, Denmark, Costa Rica, the Netherlands, Jamaica and New Zealand. The United Kingdom is ranked 33rd and the United States 44th.

The main problem facing journalists in Portugal as in Europe generally has been pandemic budget cuts that has affected even some of the biggest news companies and has resulted in job losses or reduced pay.

The Washington-based International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ), whose global team of reporters revealed the leaked ‘Panama Papers’ in May 2016, is an example of journalistic excellence, but even it regularly seeks donations to keep going.

Important information passed on to the public by local, regional or national media may not be as well researched and accurately reported as ICIJ, a major reason being that many are understaffed with journalists who are unduly pressurise not only to meet tight deadlines, but produce too many headline stories that fit with their employers’ political and commercial leanings. This in some cases encourages ‘churnalism’ as opposed to journalism. Some papers are prepared to virtually plagiarise even ‘exclusive’ stories from other papers.

Ironically coinciding with Press Freedom Day, Madeleine McCann disappeared 14 years ago on 3rd May. The mystery became the most reported missing person case in history. It has obsessed the media and millions of readers and viewers around the world. When reporting on the thee official suspects during the initial Portuguese investigation into the disappearance, some British tabloids published reports that were inaccurate or fake - or blatantly libellous. These papers were held to account in court and ordered to pay hundreds of thousands of pounds in damages.

On the other hand, the long libel action taken by  Madeleine’s parents, Kate and Gerry McCann, against the former Portuguese detective Gonçalo Amaral for allegations in his book The truth of the Lie, was overturned on appeal by Portugal’s Supreme Court on the grounds that the author was entitled to freedom of expression. An outcome is awaited from the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg on the McCann’s appeal against the judgement of Portugal’s highest court.

Meanwhile in the social media, the ethics of those commenting in any way on whoever or whatever they choose is something else. With almost unlimited freedom of expression, anonymous social media trolls don’t mind making the most despicable comments knowing they can still get away with it.

In principle, global freedom of expression is highly desirable, but it still has a long way to go.



Saturday, April 24, 2021

The generational climate fight


Greta Thunberg       Joe Biden

Elderly statesmen got together at a virtual summit on climate change last Thursday, April 22, Earth Day. At the same time, middle-aged politicians under the auspices of Portugal’s current presidency of the Council of the European Union were having discussions about a provisional EU climate law on a 2030 emissions target. Young activists are not impressed; there’s still far too much talk and far too little action, they say.

US President Joe Biden has proposed pouring trillions of dollars into clean-energy technology, research and infrastructure. He faces fierce opposition in doing so from Republicans who are sticking with Donald Trump’s extraordinary decision to pull out of the 2015 Paris climate accord. They insist that any transition to clean energy would put the jobs of American oil, gas and coal workers “into the shredder”. Republicans have also been castigating China as the world’s No. 1 greenhouse gas polluter. (America is the No.2).

As well intentioned as 78-year-old Joe Biden may be  to place the US among the most ambitious nations in curbing climate change by pledging to cut fossil fuel emissions by 52% by 2030, he may not be around to see that through, certainly not as president.

Addressing an online meeting of a US House of Representatives committee on fossil fuel subsidies that coincided with the virtual summit, 18-year-old Greta Thunberg as usual did not mince her words. “It is the year 2021. The fact that we are still having this discussion and even more that we are still subsidising fossil fuels directly or indirectly using taxpayers’ money, is a disgrace. It’s proof we have not understood the climate emergency at all,” she said.

The two-day summit briefly made the main headlines, which remain preoccupied with the COVID-19 pandemic and other current matters. To the mainstream media as well as politicians, the distant future is not as compelling as the here and now. 

Among those keeping an eye on the EU’s intentions on combating the existential threat to humanity are the four Portuguese children and two young adults who have filed a climate change lawsuit with the European Court of Human Rights against all 27 EU member states, plus Russia, the United Kingdom, Switzerland, Norway, the Ukraine and Turkey. Aged between eight and 21, they claim that all 33 countries are breaching their human rights by failing to make deep and urgent emission cuts, and not adequately addressing contributions to emissions released beyond borders.

The plaintiffs have personally experienced the ravages of heat waves and wildfires caused by climate change in their homeland. While supposedly protected by the European Convention on Human Rights, they say they fear for their future lives and livelihoods because of worsening climate change. The case they filed in September last year probably has a long way to go, but it has been granted priority and fast-tracked by the court in Strasbourg because of “the importance and urgency of the issues raised”.

This highly unusual court assurance has been greatly welcomed by the plaintiffs and the London-based barrister and international NGOs who are backing them. Their efforts are in harmony with many other court cases and public protests arranged by young climate activists around the world.

This is how Sweden’s Greta Thunberg put it to lawmakers in the US House of Representatives: “What I’m here to say is that unlike you my generation will not give up without a fight. And to be honest, I do not believe for a second that you will actually do this. The climate crisis doesn’t exist in the public debate today and since it doesn’t really exist and the general level of awareness is so absurdly low, you will still get away with continuing to contribute to the destruction of present and future living conditions. And I know I’m not the one who is supposed to ask questions here, but there is something I really do wonder. How long do you honestly believe that people in power like you will get away with it? How long do you think you can continue to ignore the climate crisis, the global aspect of equity and the historic emissions without being held accountable?

“You get away with it now, but sooner or later people are going to realise what you have been doing all this time. That’s inevitable. You still have time to do the right thing and save your legacy, but we know that time is not going to last for long. What happens then? We the young people are the ones who are going to write about you in history books. We are the ones who get to decide how you are remembered. So my advice for you is to choose wisely....

Thank you.”    


The Portuguese plaintiffs, from left to right and top to bottom: André Oliveira, Catarina Mota, Cláudia Agostinho, Mariana Agostinho, Martim Agostinho and Sofia Oliveira (Photos: Global Legal Action Network)

Thursday, April 15, 2021

International travel still troubled

It was hoped there would be clarity by now on the reopening of leisure travel from the UK, but international airlines, British holidaymakers desperate to get away and the tourist industry in Portugal are all greatly frustrated by the continuing uncertainty.

The recent taskforce framework report did not reveal any clues and the British Government has not announced anything precise about when, to what destinations and under what conditions its current international leisure travel ban will be lifted after May 17.    

“Rather than answering questions, the framework leaves everyone asking more,” said Steve Heapy, the chief executive of Jet2, which normally flies holidaymakers from the UK to Lisbon, the Algarve and Madeira among other places. Jet2 has now suspended all its flights until the third week in June.

The Reuters agency reports that the bosses of all British airlines have “joined forces to urge the British government to ensure that all popular European destinations face the least onerous travel restrictions when holidays are permitted again”.

“The aviation industry is on its knees,” said the boss of Jet2, adding that under the present circumstances it was impossible for travel businesses to make proper plans.

The chief executive of easyJet, Johan Lundgren, said he could not see any problem with opening up on May 17, but the airline does not expect passenger numbers to really pick up until late May.

The best the UK transport secretary Grant Shapps has been able to divulge is that people could now “start to think” about booking summer holidays.

 The UK Government has proposed a traffic light system that will list destination countries as red, amber or green depending on COVID risk factors. The government is especially concerned about travellers returning to the UK with Covid infections, especially any new variants of the virus.

While Britain’s aviation minister says it’s too early to predict, Portugal is expected to be one of the few countries to be in the ‘green’ category, probably along with Malta, Israel and the United States. Green list passengers will probably not have to quarantine upon returning home, but they may have to show a negative Covid test result shortly before boarding flights to and from overseas destinations.

The cost of tests is causing concern as it may exceed the cost of some international flights. A pre-departure PCR test in the UK currently costs about £128.

Portugal has lifted its overseas flight ban, but special checks will be kept in place on the border with Spain at least until early May. Meanwhile, Portugal has joined several other European Union countries in moving towards a COVID-19 passport scheme and   Portugal’s secretary of state for tourism, Rita Marques, told an online conference that this country will try to avoid “at all costs” passengers having to quarantine or take more tests this summer.

While the UK is Portugal’s number one source of visitors from abroad there are frustrating doubts too about major sources within the EU, such as France and Germany where COVID infection rates have been surging recently. Each EU country has its own non-essential travel deadlines and rules.

Portugal now has among the lowest COVID rates in Europe. With the easing of lockdown restrictions here this month and next, local tourist services may have to rely for the time being on domestic visitors until international leisure travellers are allowed in, hopefully as early as possible, before spring has completely finished and before the start of a very busy summer.

Wednesday, April 7, 2021

Portugal tourism -what’s what?


There are still many complications, much confusion and lots of uncertainty, but here’s the nitty-gritty of what’s known about the prospects for tourism from abroad.

Foreign holidaymakers are expected to start arriving in Portugal in significant numbers in May and June.

The UK has long been Portugal’s biggest source of foreign visitors, but the British Government has made it clear that no holidaymakers from England will be allowed to go anywhere abroad before May 17.

Top easyJet, Ryanair and other airline officials have strongly urged the British Government to include Portugal on a proposed “Green List” of countries and allow flights  to resume on May 17. They have asked that they be informed well ahead of this date so they can properly prepare their aircraft and staff for takeoff.

EasyJet has already announced that in addition to its normal airport terminals in the UK it will open new routes to holiday hotspots from Birmingham.

The government authorities in Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland have yet to announce the lifting of the May 17 travel ban.

Advice on the start of international travel is expected to be contained in a report commissioned by the UK Government and due to be delivered next Monday, April 12.  

The “Green Light” category of travellers will probably only need to be able to show that they have tested negative shortly before and after international travel. They will not be required to quarantine on arrival or returning.

For visitors from Ireland, the Portuguese Government requires the following measures effective until midnight April 15:

• Have a negative / ‘not detected’ result from a pre-departure COVID-19 RT-PCR test taken within 72 hours prior to arrival in Portugal.

• Present evidence of their negative/‘not detected’ result before boarding their flight, and to Portuguese immigration officers on arrival at points of entry.

Such a scenario is less certain regarding Portugal’s other major sources of holiday visitors, particularly Germany, France and the Netherlands, which have all been described as “high risk” areas because of recent surges in Covid infections amid the European Union’s slow rollout of vaccines. 

The agreement between Portugal and Spain on the closure of their land and river borders will run at least until April 15 by which time it will be reviewed. The transportation of essential goods is among the exemptions currently in place, but cross-border leisure travel is forbidden.

Holiday travel to Portugal from the United States and Canada has yet to be given the official go-ahead. 

 All passengers travelling to the Archipelago of the Azores must fill out a questionnaire of the Regional Health Authority within 72 hours before their departure. After completing the questionnaire, they will receive a code that they must use to identify themselves upon landing.

All passengers travelling to Madeira by air must complete the "Madeira Safe to Discover" web app registration at in the 12 to 48 hours before departure. If they do not complete it before the flight, they will have to do so on their mobile device after landing by using the QR codes posted at the airport or by providing their data to the staff available for that purpose.

The Portuguese Government in the weeks ahead will be systematically reviewing all its current restrictions on holiday travel. Meanwhile, throughout mainland Portugal small groups may be served on outside tables in cafes and restaurants and museums have been among the facilities recently opened after two months of lockdown. The plan is to allow the reopening of restaurants indoors as well as outdoors on May 19. All stores and shopping centres as well as auditoriums and theatres will be back in business on April 19.

All sports, gyms, indoor and outdoor physical activities and other events will be permitted with reduced capacity from May 3.  

The coronavirus is not going away anytime soon and so basic rules such as the wearing of facemasks and appropriate social distancing will remain mandatory in public places throughout Portugal at least until June 13

While many Covid uncertainties remain, one thing beyond any doubt is that all sections of the Portuguese tourist industry that is so vital for this country’s economy, want to welcome with open arms any holidaymakers frustrated by lockdowns in each of their home countries.

Sunday, March 21, 2021

Tourism is in limbo indefinitely


April 12 could be a highly significant day for Portugal's shattered tourist industry, which is desperate to welcome visitors from abroad as soon as possible. A great many of those potential visitors, who have long been living in lockdown, are desperate  to come.

On April 12 a British government taskforce will report to Prime Minister Boris Johnson with details of when and how international travel from the UK should be resumed.

The UK is Portugal’s number one source of foreign holidaymakers. So far, Prime Minister Johnson has made it clear that unessential travel from England will not be permitted before May 19. He has not yet announced when such travel will be permitted. UK Transport Secretary Grant Shapps said at the weekend that it was still “too early to tell” when holidays abroad would be allowed.

A  scientific adviser to the British government has thrown new uncertainties into the confusion by telling the BBC that allowing summer holidays abroad was “extremely unlikely” because of the risk of travellers bringing coronavirus variants back to the UK. The adviser, Dr Mike Tildesley, said: “I think we are running a real risk if we start to have lots of people going overseas in July, for instance, or August.”

British Secretary of Defence Ben Wallace seemed to back this chilling remark by saying an extension of the May 19 ban on holiday travel could not be ruled out because “we are not going to do anything that puts at risk the national effort to control this pandemic.” He added that booking a holiday now would be “premature” and “potentially risky.”  The Labour Party’s shadow foreign secretary, Lisa Nandy, says she will not be booking a holiday abroad.

In Scotland, national clinical director Professor Jason Leitch said foreign holidays in Europe were looking “less likely” as Covid numbers in some countries were “a cause for concern.”  

Of concern in Portugal also is that a third Covid wave in Germany, Poland, France and Italy could not only hold up tourism from those countries, but somehow spread with variants elsewhere in the continent.

Covid daily rates in Portugal are currently lower than at any time since early October last year. This has given rise to hope among those in the travel industry, including airlines and tour operators, that things could start improving at least by June. They will have to wait to an announcement about the April 12 report before they have a better idea of what lies ahead so far as the UK is concerned. 

For now, one good thing is that most, though not all, of the controversy over the AstraZeneca vaccine has been settled. It has been deemed   to be “safe and effective with benefits that far outweigh the risks.” As in many other EU countries, Portugal briefly suspended the administration of the AstraZeneca vaccine as a “precautionary measure” following unsubstantiated reports about the risk of lethal blood clots.

Portugal now wants to push ahead as fast as possible with as many jabs as possible. Vaccinations so far have been very slow to administer even to the elderly and most vulnerable because of insufficient deliveries of AstraZeneca, Pfizer and Moderna doses across the European continent. Millions of the single-dose Janssen vaccine are awaited from the American Johnson & Johnson corporation. 

Vaccinations rates in Portugal may remain low for weeks to come, but for now infection rates are becoming more manageable. The statistics change every day of course, but in round figures since the start of the pandemic in Portugal there have been 817,000 confirmed infection cases and just under 16,800 deaths.

The worst infected area has been in the north of the country. The most deaths have been in the Lisbon-Tagus Valley. Far, far fewer infections and deaths have been recorded in the prime holiday destinations of the Algarve and the two autonomous regions of Madeira and the Azores.

Lockdown restrictions within the country have started to be eased and will be lowered considerably on April 5, April 9 and May 3 by which time most public facilities will be open again, though with strict maximum group numbers, social distancing rules - and few if any foreign visitors in sight .  


Sunday, March 14, 2021

Ireland, St. Patrick and Portugal

 St. Patrick’s Day, March 17, is celebrated annually around the world, including, of course, by Irish expatriates in Portugal and Portuguese living in Ireland. With traditional festivities subdued this year because of the coronavirus pandemic, it’s a good time to reflect on the close ties that have long existed between these two countries.

The Irish Embassy in Lisbon points out on its website that “Portugal is close to the top of holiday destinations for Irish people, and thousands of Portuguese people call Ireland their second home from home, as do Irish people resident in Portugal.”

The latest official number of Irish visitors to Portugal was 522,000 in 2019, an increase of about 164,500 on the previous year. Pandemic permitting, substantial numbers will be able to come later this year too.

The Embassy has arranged a number of online events as well as the flood-lighting of ten of the most imposing monuments and buildings across Portugal. It’s part of Ireland’s “Global Greening” programme.

As staunch members of the European Union, the governments in Dublin and Lisbon continue to co-operate with each other and the rest of the EU to ensure a full and sustainable recovery from the European debt crisis.

The strong bilateral economic relationship involved more than €700 million in merchandise trade in 2019. Another example of co-operation was the recent launching of a cargo ferry service between Dublin and Leixões, a major seaport near Oporto. A range of Irish firms also operate in the services  sector with 120 companies as members of the Ireland Portugal Business Network  (IPBN).

Personal and trade ties go back a very, very long way – to many hundreds of years before St. Patrick came on to the scene n the 4th century.

Historians believe that Celtic people who had migrated to the Iberian Peninsula in two big waves, around 900 BC and again 700 – 600 BC,  travelled to Ireland to join other Celts who had emigrated there from mainland Europe in the Iron Age beginning around 500 BC.

St. Patrick, an atheist in his youth, converted to Catholicism in Roman times and then set out to convert the pagans in what fifteen or sixteen centuries later would become the Republic of Ireland. Other missionaries were doing the same at about the same time in what would eventually become the Republic of Portugal. Roman Catholicism is still the predominate religion in both countries.

Much has changed since the distant past, of course, but St. Patrick’s Day is normally celebrated with vigour throughout the island of Ireland, that’s to say in Northern Ireland as well as the Republic. St. Patrick’s grave is said to be on a hillside just outside the small northern town of Downpatrick.

Their geographical position on the western edge of continental Europe encouraged trade between Ireland and Portugal to increase during medieval times. The Irish imported such commodities as wine, silver, textiles, ceramics and leather. The Portuguese imported mainly salted fish, beef, wool and timber.

Cultural and intellectual influences grew from the 16th to 18thcenturies when Irish scholars went to study at the universities in Évora, Coimbra and Lisbon. In the 18th and 19th centuries several influential Irish families settled in Portugal and descendants remain here today.

The island of Ireland is smaller with a population half that of Portugal, but a mutual feeling of friendship and respect endures nowadays with the convergence of political and diplomatic interests within the Eurozone.

St. Patrick's Day 'greening' in Lisbon