The beaches are almost empty, the sand is soft underfoot and the sky is a brilliant blue. A gentle breeze stirs the air as we walk along, enjoying the long stretch of sandy beach ahead of us, as the waves crash gently on the shoreline. It could be February in the Algarve, except for the temperature gauge which is nudging 35 degrees.
So many people on social media are saying that they feel safer here than in the UK. Cafés and restaurants are all complying with social distancing rules, tables are spread apart, and the wearing of a mask is compulsory unless you are sat down eating. All tables and chairs are disinfected after each customer. Hand sanitisers are everywhere, and you cannot enter a supermarket or shop without a mask. We have seen people turned away by the security guard at the door for not having a mask on. The beaches have signs displayed and a traffic light system to show occupancy numbers. The council even disinfect the streets.
In our local town, one case of Covid infected a total of seven people. They were all instantly quarantined at home or taken to hospital. One of the family members worked for the local council. Within a week, all 230 council workers were tested for Covid, and all were negative.
And yet still the British Government has declared that Portugal is not a safe enough destination to travel to. They have changed the list of travel corridors but have kept Portugal out. British holidaymakers who go to Portugal will have to self-isolate for two weeks on their return back home.
The president of the Algarve Tourism Region (RTA) João Fernandes, speaking to Sul Informação, said that, “83% of British overnight stays in Portugal, at this time of year, happen in the Algarve and Madeira, which are specially prepared regions and with lower epidemiological rates than many of the countries that place travel restrictions on Portugal.” ¹
There are flights with only 20 people on them arriving at Faro airport. Flights are being cancelled, and people are concerned that their travel insurance will be invalid if they travel to Portugal.
According to the Portuguese Economic Journal, they state that Reuters have reported that so far, “only 92 Britons have arrived in the region, a figure far from what was recorded in previous years, when close to two million Britons filled the Algarve’s restaurants, hotels and sands.”
They continue, “To date, hotels in the Algarve have an occupancy rate close to 40%, and without the effects of the pandemic, they should already be full. The number of unemployed in the region also grew 231% compared to the same period last year, increasing from eight thousand to more than 26 thousand unemployed, since many depended on seasonal jobs.” ²
We know of many restaurants, bars, hotels and guest accommodation businesses that are suffering. Without a busy summer season, many people and their families are facing a long bleak winter ahead. It is not just the frontline tourist industries that are suffering, wedding photographers have found that their entire season’s bookings have been cancelled or postponed until next summer. Musicians cannot perform, hair and beauty treatments, yoga, massage, and spa days out are all luxury items that are being shelved, boat tours and day trips, taxis and theme parks are empty.
According to the most recent figures, the United Kingdom “has so far recorded over 297,000 people infected with coronavirus and 45,554 deaths due to the disease. It is currently the third country with the most cases of infection in Europe and the tenth-largest in the world. Meanwhile, Portugal has 49,379 infected people and registered 1,705 deaths.” ³
But these figures also belie the problem facing the Algarve. Almost 75% of Portugal’s cases are in the Lisbon and the north, as can be seen from data issued by the Directorate- General for Health (DGS). This week’s report on new cases states that:
“In line with what has been happening in recent months, most cases are in Lisbon and the Tagus Valley [LVT]. In the capital region and its surroundings, there were 172 [new] cases – that is, 75.1% of the total 229 cases announced today.
By regions, LVT remains the most affected area in the country, having so far accounted for 25,110 infected people and 582 fatalities. This is followed by the North with 18,441 and 828 deaths, and then the Central region with 4392 contagions and 252 deaths. In Alentejo, there [have been] 667 confirmed cases and 20 fatalities, and in the Algarve, 817 [have been] infected with 15 deaths.
In the autonomous regions, the Azores has had 160 contagions and 15 deaths and, in Madeira, 105 cases, with no fatal victims associated with the new virus since the beginning of the pandemic.” ⁴
The District Civil Protection Commission of Faro yesterday revealed that, based on data provided by the Health Authority, there are currently 242 active cases in the Algarve.
The list of countries exempt from UK quarantine is due to be reviewed on Monday, July 27, and it is hoped that the review may include regional air bridges, which could see the Algarve included, while areas such as Lisbon, with its higher infection rates, would still be blacklisted.
It is currently more than a little embarrassing to be British and living here in the Algarve at the moment. There does not seem to be any logic at all to the British Government’s decision to leave Portugal off the safe air bridge list. And particularly the Algarve, with its low numbers of infections and safe procedures in place. Luckily for us, the Head of State, Marcelo Rebelo de Sousa, seems to bear us no bad feeling:
“It is evident that we would prefer to have more British tourists, but that is not why we are going to treat badly, on the contrary, we will treat even better, the 40 thousand Britons who live in Portugal,” he pointed out this week to the Portuguese Economic Journal. ⁵
But will 2020 become a lost year for tourism here in the Algarve? How many businesses will survive this pandemic? How many beach cafés will still be open next summer for both locals and tourists alike?
“It is more than a lost year,” states Elidérico Viegas, president of the Association of Hotels and Tourist Enterprises of the Algarve, emphasizing that “the truth is that the Algarve was practically out of the pandemic, and was strongly affected by criteria that do not take into account other realities.” ⁶
Will it be too late already? Even if the British Government make an exception for the Algarve next week, will people have already booked to go elsewhere for their summer holiday this year? This is a beautiful place to live and work, and we are proud to call it home. And proud to be stood alongside local people and business owners who wear their face masks uncomplainingly, serving customers and looking after their staff and clients, all in the heat of summer.
Of course we do not want to see infection rates rise here, or anywhere else for that matter, and we ask everyone who does come to visit us here in the Algarve to respect the rules that have been imposed. For your own safety, and everyone else’s too. And then maybe we can all enjoy the beautiful beaches, scenery, food, and culture of this western European paradise.
Alyson Sheldrake is an artist and writer. Together with her husband, Dave, a professional photographer, they have lived and worked in the Algarve for the last nine years and are proud to call it home.
Alyson is the author of ‘Living the Dream – in the Algarve, Portugal’ about their life here in the Algarve. It is available for sale on Amazon worldwide.
All Images © Dave Sheldrake Photography