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

Sunday, March 7, 2021

Golf could lead tourism revival

There are signs that the golfing sector, an integral part of Portugal’s vital tourism industry, may bounce back dramatically after Covid restrictions are eased and international flights resumed.

The pandemic has impacted heavily on the many golf resorts in the Algarve and elsewhere in the country. All of the courses are currently closed. Associated hotels are virtually empty as their restaurants, bars and other facilities are in lockdown. A reopening date has yet to be announced.

It’s generally recognised that golf is a sport that has been, and can continue to be, played safely during the Covid crisis.

The chief executive of the Portuguese Golf Federation has written to the minister of sport requesting the reopening of the golf clubs and explained how safe golf is with the necessary precautions in place. Players can easily keep the required distance and holes on the greens have been adjusted so no one touches the flags.

Even so, holiday golfers from the UK, a major tourist market, may not be permitted by the UK government to travel internationally before May 17.

In Spain, where the Covid-19 infection and death rates have been very high, golf courses have remained open even though the borders have been closed between Spain, Portugal and France.

The courses in Scotland have remained open too, while those in the rest of the United Kingdom have been closed since early January this year. English courses can reopen from March 29. An announcement about closed courses in Wales is expected on March 12 and the situation in Northern Ireland is to be reviewed on March 19.

A survey of 200 golf clubs in the UK concluded that 80 percent of them had a rise in membership last year, and more than a third of these reported a “dramatic” rise in membership. Despite - or because of the pandemic - nearly half of the clubs surveyed said they had an increase in green fee revenue and 33 percent said rounds were up “significantly” on the previous year.  

Meanwhile, an “invasion” of holidaying golfers and their families is predicted in Portugal when international travel bans are lifted. Although mid-May  approaches the end of the traditional spring golf season in this country, if the UK government lifts travel restrictions around then it will be welcome, particularly in the Algarve in the run-up  to the crowded summer ‘sun and sand’ holidays.

Furthermore, the mid-February to May and September to mid-November golf seasons have been edging longer. This has encouraged more visits by families in which not all members play golf.

Another reason for optimism is that many potential visitors from abroad are simply fed up of living in lockdown and are anxious to get away. Far more of them in the UK than anywhere else are ready to do just that because they have already been vaccinated or are in line to have their jabs fairly soon. So, let’s see what happens in May if not before.

It’s not yet clear if the Portugal Masters, a PGA European Tour event and the biggest annual competition in the country’s golfing calendar, will be able to go ahead as scheduled at the Dom Pedro Course at Vilamoura in the Algarve from 28th April to 2nd May.

If the Masters does take place as scheduled, even without the usual big, live crowd of spectators present, it will spark interest internationally as it’s a top professional event televised and watched across the world, giving the Algarve good publicity as a tourist destination.  

Golf has been fundamental to tourism in Portugal since the entrepreneur John Stilwell and his friend and famed golf champion Henry Cotton developed and opened the Algarve’s first 18-hole course next to the Penina Hotel in 1966. Today, there are 46 full-length or nine-hole courses located from east to west across the region. The Lisbon area has 25, Porto 10, Madeira five and the Azores three.  

Every one of them is eagerly awaiting as many players as soon as possible - and so is the rest of the tourist industry.