Noel Josephides sounds weary. Two weeks ago when the UK government added Portugal to the travel corridor list, the chairman of Sunvil issued a statement saying he was delighted to start selling holidays to Portugal again, “just in time for the last couple of weeks of the peak summer season, but also in time for the glorious autumnal months of September and October, right into November.”
By the beginning of this week the rumour was that the country’s brief spell as a “safe destination” was about to come to an end as coronavirus cases in the country went above 20 per 100,000 people – the level at which the UK government considers triggering quarantine conditions. On Tuesday, the UK ambassador to Portugal fuelled speculation that the country would soon revert to the quarantine list when he warned that air bridges can “change quickly”. The hint that the 20 August decision could be reversed was enough to unsettle British holidaymakers in Portugal and spark a rush to get back to the UK before the dreaded deadline. EasyJet sold out of all its flights from Faro, which serves the Algarve, to airports in Britain on Wednesday, Thursday and Friday.
“They seem to start with a rumour and hints then there’s panic overseas – and everyone rushes to book [a flight home]. It’s no way to work – you don’t drop the rumours and let them run for a week,” said Josephides.
This time the rumours proved false, at least for English holidaymakers. On Thursday afternoon Grant Shapps, the UK transport secretary, announced that there would be no changes to the travel corridor list this week, although Wales and Scotland disagreed. Shapp’s reprieve was unexpected but did nothing to reassure either holidaymakers or tourism businesses. The damage had already been done. “Unless we have some sort of testing in place you might as well forget the rest of the season,” said Josephides. “It just isn’t working in Portugal, or anywhere.”
After weeks of travel corridor roulette, holidaymakers have so little faith in the quarantine rules that some took to Twitter to ask Shapps if he was likely to change his mind tomorrow. The fact that England’s decision differed from Wales and Scotland’s did nothing to allay the confusion.
“Meant to be returning to England Sunday. Booked a backup flight for tomorrow just in case (as have many Brits). Are you saying we are ok til Sunday? Need to make a decision re Friday flight,” tweeted Nicola Syms to the transport secretary.
In Portugal, the Algarve, where Britons make up 40% of all tourists, is bearing the brunt of the damage. CEO of the Hotel Association of Portugal, Cristina Siza Vieira, said the addition of Portugal to the travel corridor on 20 August “felt like an oxygen balloon”. Hotels that had been closed reopened and staff who had been laid off were brought back to work. “It had an immediate impact on reservations, and made hotels dream of a good September, October and November. Now people feel really frustrated and discouraged, especially in the Algarve.”
Chitra Stern owns the Martinhal hotel group, which has two properties in the Algarve and two in the Lisbon area. She said: “We will be lucky to have a third of our business in the Algarve this year.” Stern said the phones began ringing within minutes of the air bridge announcement on 20 August, with people keen to book for the last week of the summer holidays and into September and October – and were ringing again on Thursday with cancellations.
Soul & Surf, a surf and yoga retreat near Lagos in the western Algarve, has been fully booked for the last two weeks, albeit at a Covid-safe lower occupancy level of 14 guests, rather than the usual 26, but this week it started to receive emails from worried customers. “It’s very frustrating,” said manager Adam Simpson. “This flip-flopping every two weeks will stop people taking a punt on travelling.” Already, one British guest who was planning to extend his stay at the retreat has gone home, and another cancelled less than 12 hours before she was due to check in.
The yo-yo-ing situation has forced some businesses to halt altogether. James Power’s tour business Grape Discoveries offers tailored wine tours in and around Porto. After lockdown was lifted in mid-May, he knew some difficult months lay ahead. Around 90% of his clients come from either the US or the UK. With a ban still in place for Americans, he was banking on Britons. But despite the decision on 20 August to include Portugal on the UK travel corridor list, they haven’t returned.
“With all this instability, we’re finding that people are either postponing or cancelling their trips, so we’ve put our tours on hold for the time being,” said Power.
Pedro Figueiredo, co-owner of Worst Tours, a popular “anti-tour” agency, is equally despondent. “First came Brexit, then lockdown, then talk of going back into quarantine measures,” he said. To sum up his desperation, he turns to the Portuguese phrase chover no molhado – literally, “to rain on what’s already wet”, their equivalent of flogging a dead horse.
• Reporting by Oliver Balch in Porto, Célia Pedroso in Lisbon and Rachel Dixon in London