“Calculate how many travelers crossed Portugal during a century then tell us: do you believe that the foreigner reaches the end of his pilgrimage without spending much gold? Do you not know that this gold reaches many Portuguese hands?” These words from Alexandre Herculano, written in the 19th century, in an article in the magazine O Panorama, illustrate the understanding of the importance of tourism as an economic activity that generates revenue.
The inflow of foreign exchange was also the criterion that, already in the late twentieth century, presided over the choice of tourism as a priority in the services sector. In 1994, the document called Building Portugal’s Competitive Advantage, better known as the Porter Report, noted that “In Portugal, the most important service is undoubtedly tourism”, adding that it was a fast growing cluster, which, taking the value of exports, was only surpassed by textiles/clothing, and in terms of share in world exports, was only behind forest products.
In the 21st century, the importance of the sector is mirrored in the Tourism Satellite Account. The data released in December show us that, in 2019, the gross value added of tourism would have been directly responsible for 8.5% of national GDP, a contribution that increases to 11.6% if we also consider the indirect impact of tourism activity and its related effects.
2020 started well. Very well, indeed. In January, overnight stays and guests grew 7.2% and 11.4%, respectively. February was even better. But in March the pandemic appeared and, to the natural fear of a new disease, we added confinements, travel restrictions and border closures, with the obvious effect on tourism. We do not yet have the data from the Satellite Account, but 2020 meant a drop of 63% in overnight stays, 61% in guests, 66% in income and 57% in tourism revenue. In the labor market, the number of workers in the accommodation, restaurant and similar sectors contracted by almost 15%. After a decade of successive record-breaking performances in several indicators, SARS-CoV-2 brought tourism to levels seen thirty years ago.
2020 ended with some optimism emerging, brought on by the beginning of the vaccination process. But the new year brought a cold snap and a second wave of infection, which dictated a second containment that we had been told would not exist. And although hope is known to be the last to die, sometimes tiredness overcomes it. Nevertheless, if you ask me if tourism will take off this year, my answer is that I hope that 2021 will already bring some growth to the sector.
This is not a rainbow vision. It is the awareness that 2020 was so bad that we won’t have to do much to have some positive results (not to be confused with a V-shaped recovery). Still, a few things need to be done (besides the obvious collective work of keeping the contagion numbers contained).
The first of these will be to support the business fabric and jobs in the sector. Not only because of a social conscience imperative, but also because it would be tragic if there were no supply to meet the demand when it returns. And it sure will.
Various surveys, including one by the European Travel Commission, show that traveling is still part of people’s desires – in this respect the pandemic has not brought about any structural change. But, logically, people want to travel feeling safe, and they want their vacations to be carefree days.
So, it seems to me that this will be an excellent occasion to promote the idea that there is more to Portugal than the traditional destinations of Lisbon, Algarve, Madeira and Porto. Destinations where you can also find culture, good food, good weather; and hospitable people, of course, but in smaller concentrations, as you want in pandemic times. I have been defending this need – that tourism be a factor for territorial cohesion, instead of mimicking regional asymmetries – but now it has other conditions to become a priority and reality.
It would also be important to have alternatives to air transportation, since spending hours locked in an airplane is one of the aspects that puts a brake on the desire to travel. Unfortunately, the plan to have true international rail connections is still unfulfilled. But since such links cannot be built overnight, it must be ensured that flights are safe now also in the health dimension. For this, tests play a crucial role, but they cannot be an additional cost on the journey. The fact that they determine the possibility of someone being prevented from returning home is a problem.
But let’s be realistic: even if we overcome the difficulties arising from air transport, even if we manage to promote lower-risk regions in Portugal, we are not already going to return to the 27 million guests we had in 2019. Most experts say that the return to that level will not happen before 2023. Therefore, if we are going to receive visitors, let’s do it with more quality, so that the revenue recovers more quickly through price.
And here I return to the first idea, that of supporting companies. But not only in their cash flow. Support them, from the start, through the training of their human resources, which is one of the pillars of the World Economic Forum’s Tourism Competitiveness Index, in which we have a not such a positive performance. With half of the establishments closed or without guests, this would be the right time to be increasing the qualifications of the workers in the sector. And to support them in investments and in the adoption of technologies that will reduce water and energy consumption, enabling them to make future operational savings, while increasing the sector’s environmental sustainability.
In 1911, the French architect Henri Martinet, connected to the well known project Estoril: A maritime, climatic, thermal, and sports resort, prophesied: “Portugal will become one of the first tourism countries. In 2021, I still think he was right.