Focus: Azores

The More Things Change...

Feb. 19, 2019

As many countries have discovered to their chagrin, tourism has a tendency to exact irreversible damage on local environments, both natural and manmade, turning the unknown into the workaday and in a further nod to consumerism.

We have all seen them and been them. Tourists treading backwater into beaten tracks, seeking a sense of 'the other.' Unfortunately, many countries now rue the day they succumbed to the appeal of tourist revenue without checks. This has given the hugely popular Portugal pause for thought. In fact, it has won plaudits for its program of sustainable tourism. In November 2018 Portugal hosted the sixth Tourism and Management Studies International Conference, a leading European event, the theme of which was the challenges and strategies of today's tourism industry. And while the fifth outing had sparked 550 papers and delivered 380 presentations, there is far more than academic prowess at stake.

The economic imperative is blatant. Since the seismic 2011-14 debt crisis, the beaches and putting greens of Portugal have buoyed a recovering economy. Tourism accounted for 17.3% of GDP in 2017, and sector data indicates that this is set to reach 20.5% by 2018. Tourism provides no less than one in five jobs, and the government foresees a further 100,000 to come if targets are met.

The World Travel & Tourism Council (WTTC) confirms Portugal's ranking among Europe's top five most-visited countries, urging the authorities to maintain that status. And in September 2018, Portugal was able to assure the WTTC Forum that the sector was in fine fettle. Sector numbers for 2017 spoke for themselves, as revenues had soared 19% YoY for 2017, printing a further 14% rise year to date. The record number of visitors was north of 20 million (57.5 million overnight stays). In fact, foreign tourists exceeded 12 million, and foreign overnight stays claimed 72.4% of total overnight stays on a marginal rise from 71.5% in 2016. Total revenues of USD18.5 billion were up 23.6% YoY. Extending the welcome in 2017 were 44 new hotels, while 20 were overhauled. In 2017 the record number of US visitors alone was close to 700,000. And in 2018 Portugal stands to have registered record non-stop flights from the US, with 91 per week in peak season under the livery of five airlines, taking off from nine cities across the country. Meanwhile back in 2017, TAP Air Portugal, the national carrier, flew a record 14.25 million passengers, no less than doubling its flights from the US in when compared to 2016.

More significantly for the long term, in 2017 Portugal committed to the International Year of Sustainable Tourism for Development. It was also the launch year of Portugal 4.0, the transformative project built on tourism sector entrepreneurship and diversification. Celebratory initiatives included the rehabilitation of historical sites in Portugal's interior to render more of its heritage accessible to a wider audience. A perennial problem for the tourism sector is that of seasonality, namely a cycle of full and empty rooms that curbs regular sector employment with attendant social consequences in areas wholly dependent on tourism. The sustainability model now being pursued is to disperse tourists nationwide throughout the entire year by capitalizing on clement year-round weather for cycling, hiking, and other more active pursuits, aside from traditional areas of appeal. Indeed, by 2027, Portugal hopes to have cut its seasonality ratio from 37.5% to 33.5%, while doubling qualified worker numbers.
This policy has already won plaudits, and in 2016 Portugal lifted the Sustainable Tourism European award. Notably, the Dark Sky Alqueva Reserve, in the Alentejo, was recognized by the European Commission in the European Tourism Indicators System (ETIS) for its light pollution night skies.

Electronic dance music legend The Prodigy once released an album menacingly entitled No Tourists, the title track of which features the refrain, “nothing to see, no ride is free." And while that's obviously not the message Portugal is sending, its sustainability program does make it clear that a sustainable tourism program is taking shape in sympathy with the citizenry itself and its natural habitat.