‘I’m filled with hope’: cash-strapped Algarve awaits return of UK tourists | Portugal | The Guardian
‘I’m filled with hope’: cash-strapped Algarve awaits return of UK tourists
Assistant in souvenir shop. Tatiana stands by the counter of the souvenir shop where she works in downtown Faro, with little in the way of company besides the postcard racks, the shelves of trinkets and towels, and an all too familiar silence.Outside, the cobbled streets of the Algarve tourist city are similarly quiet – but probably not for much longer. A week after the UK government added Portugal to its travel “green list”, Lisbon announced that British visitors would be welcomed back from Monday as long as they provided a negative PCR test.The news has been greeted with relief and excitement by those who work in one of the country’s most tourism-dependent regions. Portugal, which was praised for its speedy and far-sighted response to the first wave of the coronavirus, was pitched into crisis at the beginning of this year, logging more than 16,000 cases a day in a population of just 10.2 million people. In an effort to save the country’s paralysed health system from collapse, the government imposed a strict nationwide lockdown and banned foreign visitors, leaving the tourism sector struggling to survive.The Algarve bore the brunt of the losses: in February, the number of people registered at the regions’s job centres was up 70% on the previous year. Without income, many families found themselves dependent on charity. “We live in an area that lives off tourism,” says the charity’s vice-president, Elsa Morais Cardoso. “But tourism stopped and no one was prepared for it. Suddenly people saw themselves without any income – and that was when the hunger arrived.”
While the Algarve has always suffered from seasonal unemployment and a precarious work environment – a situation exacerbated by the pandemic – Cardoso says the current situation is totally different: “We have entire families going hungry.”
Cabrita Alves worries that the crisis will not die down until 2024, a fear shared by Paula Matias, the Faro coordinator for Refood, an NGO that works to cut food waste by redistributing leftover food from restaurants and supermarkets. Refood is helping 428 people – a fourfold increase on pre-pandemic demand – and the requests for assistance are still coming in.
The Portuguese government hopes that its vaccination programme will head off a further economic crisis and has already handed out €233m (£200m) in financial aid to companies in the Algarve. João Fernandes, president of the regional tourism board, says a new financial package is on the way. However, like most people in the Algarve, he is not betting on a speedy recovery. Bookings from the UK have tripled since Portugal was added to the green list, leading Fernandes and others to cross their fingers – not least because neighbouring Spain remains on the amber list, meaning travellers returning to the UK will have to quarantine for 10 days and take two Covid tests. “We’re seeing quite interesting levels of demand, especially because some of our competitors were not included in the green list,” says Fernandes. “So every indicator points to a robust demand from the UK.”
He and most of the people who live and work in the Algarve hope the worst has passed and that British visitors will arrive with deep enthusiasm and still deeper pockets. But the optimism is guarded. “There’s a renewed excitement,” says Fernandes. “But I don’t have a crystal ball.”
Despite the pain of the past year – not to mention Portugal’s continuing state of emergency – Friday’s announcement was the best news many people in and around Faro had received in almost a year. Carla Lacerda, who was let go from her job at a duty-free shop in Faro airport last August, is a single mother who has been relying on Refood to help feed her nine-year-old son and five-year-old daughter. She cannot make ends meet on the €620 she receives each month in unemployment and child benefits.
She is praying that the return of Britons will lead to a call from the duty-free shop for her and her 35 colleagues. “They’ll need staff,” she says. “I don’t think people understand the amount of British clients we had at the airport; sometimes there would be five flights arriving at the same time and we had no rest.” After what seems like an eternity, Lacerda is beginning to feel the stirrings of a long-forgotten emotion. “I’m filled with a lot of hope,” she says. “Hope is always the last to die.”