What future for tourism in Portugal?

It is important to maintain a strategic path, as in the past, along with the creation of conditions for strengthening skills and innovation capacity.

The first months of the year anticipated an exceptionally good summer for tourism in Portugal. If it had been completed, today we would have our cities and beaches full of tourists. Instead, we have a huge void, hotels with very low occupations, cities left to their inhabitants, beaches available for peaceful moments of leisure.

The pandemic changed everything. Today, finally, a few months after the beginning of the Covid-19 outbreak, Europe returns to some normality, a new normal.

We are now in that period when, traditionally, the hustle and bustle associated with tourism would be at one of its peaks and, however, tourist activity remains almost paralyzed.

The estimated impact of Covid-19 on tourism is tremendous! And, it will be even more so if the travel restrictions are maintained. The first available data from the World Tourism Organization (UNWTO) barometer points to a 22% reduction in activity in the first quarter of 2020, with arrivals in March falling 57%. This translates into a loss of 67 million international arrivals and about $ 80 billion in revenue.

The situation is of great uncertainty and it is for this reason that successive downward revisions of the outlook for the tourism sector are being observed this year. UNWTO moves forward with three scenarios, which it stresses are not forecasts, and which, due to the moment when travel restrictions are lifted, anticipate declines of 58% to 78% in international tourist arrivals[1].

It should be noted that this reduction in international arrivals of tourists does not necessarily mean a drop in activity in the sector of this order of magnitude, insofar as domestic tourism remains, not considered in the analysis. However, considering only the effect referred to, the UNWTO anticipates that “these scenarios would put at risk 100 to 120 million direct jobs in tourism”.

These projections, which are dramatic in relation to the near future of tourism, are, however, better than the scenarios prepared by The World Travel & Tourism Council (WT&TC) where it estimates, in a better scenario, the loss of 98,2 million jobs and in the worst case scenario the loss of 187,5 million jobs.

The situation thus combines great drama and still great unpredictability. There is a great lack of knowledge about how the situation will evolve and, when looking at history, we find only a vaguely similar situation: the crisis that tourism experienced at the beginning of the century associated with the attacks in New York in September 2001 and to the SARS outbreak in 2002 and 2003. Similar to what happened then, it is possible that an effective resumption of tourism will occur only in 2022. If so, it will not be just this year that the sector will face great difficulties, the same will happen next year. year.

There was no one who failed to see in this tourism crisis a sign that we shouldn't have 25 million tourists a year again, that we should get rid of Airbnb, that maybe we don't even need a new airport for Lisbon, or maybe not even so we need flights to Porto so much, or that what was important now was to bet on tourism with greater added value.

There are those who look at tourism and consider that it is always the image of the development of countries that cannot be competitive in any other way than through the exploration of “sun and sand”, and there are those who look at the recent development of tourism in Portugal and think that it was made mainly by "sun and sand".

There are fundamentally two errors in the assessment of what tourism is and the role of Portuguese tourism in the world, which should be highlighted. First, the discussion about tourism often starts from the prejudice that tourism is mainly aimed at countries with lesser degrees of development and less sophisticated economies, which basically exploit “sun and sand”.

It is not true that this is so. The main destination countries for tourism are developed countries - the United States of America, Spain and France, have this primacy. In the first ten destinations beyond Thailand and Hong Kong, all the others are developed countries, and many of them have little appeal in the sun and sand binomial.

The second error of assessment is related to the assessment made of the evolution of tourism in Portugal in the last decade. At the ranking competitiveness of tourism at the World Economic Forum, Portugal evolved from 18th position in 2011, to 20th position in 2013 (as a result of the degradation of economic activity) and then successively to 15th position in 2015, 14th in 2017 and 12th in 2019.

This image of the country is also obtained if the analysis focuses on the World Travel Awards, where the last few years have been marked by successive awards. But this is also felt in what is the experience of tourism in Portugal, in the affirmation of Porto, and the North in general. In the capacity of affirming programs of a regional or local nature of great strength - surfing in the West region, shale villages, tourism in the Azores - to mention just a few.

Times are not easy and the news of travel limitations to and from Portugal does not help either self-esteem or the adequate resumption of activity in the sector. However, to think that a few air corridors would solve the problem of tourism in Portugal in the coming years is illusory.

Tourism has made a consistent path in Portugal. Of course, many problems remain. The Algarve tourism development model. The tourist pressure in Lisbon and the adequacy of the existing infrastructures, namely the airport ones, to this pressure. The great dependence on tourism in some regions, functioning almost as a mono-industry. The inability of tourism to assume itself as a major factor in the development of less densely populated areas and to constitute itself as an element of population fixation. The low qualification of human resources and the lack of attractiveness of professional careers in the sector, etc.

However, the resolution of these constraints must be compatible with the path taken so far. It has been a journey with strategy, based on strengthening skills and know-how, based on the cooperation and involvement of different agents: State, companies, workers, municipalities, etc.

As important as the day-to-day problems, the difficulties of companies and workers, be monitored and a significant effort is made to avoid dropping existing projects. However, this must be compatible with the reinforcement of the reflection on the future of tourism in Portugal and with the creation of conditions for the reinforcement of competences and capacity for innovation. This interregnum time can and should be used accordingly.

[1] Scenario 1. Travel restrictions lifted and national borders opened in early July - 58% reduction; Scene 2. Travel restrictions lifted and national borders opened in early September - 70% reduction; Scene 3. Travel restrictions lifted and national borders opened in early December - 78% reduction.

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