Bookings soar as Portugal welcomes back UK and EU tourists



CGTN | Portugal lifted a ban on non-essential travel, which had been in place since the end of January. For the first time in three months, tourists are allowed to enter. Visitors only need to present a negative COVID-19 test.

A much-needed relief for the tourism sector, which represents almost 20 percent of Portugal's gross domestic product (GDP).

"Last year was terrible but this is a relief for me and everyone else, at least we already see people in the streets again," Silvina Rodrigues says. She has been selling ice cream for more than 40 years in downtown Lisbon.

"It's almost back to what we used to have in 2019. Not the same, but at least we are selling something," she tells CGTN Europe as she scoops ice cream for the customers surrounding her trolley. Many tourism-reliant businesses like Silvina's were shut down for months, after Portugal suffered one of the world's worst coronavirus outbreaks in January. In 2020 the hotel industry suffered, as the number of stays dropped by up to 80 percent.

On Friday, May 17, the Portuguese government announced it was lifting its travel ban for visitors from the UK. On Saturday, it extended the measure to tourists from the European Union. Both rules apply for countries with less than 500 new cases of COVID-19 per 100,000 habitants in the previous 15 days. Bookings across the country have skyrocketed since the UK added Portugal to its green travel list. For the Pestana Hotel Group, one of the largest in the country, reservations almost tripled.

"It didn't take 10 minutes until the phones started ringing non-stop, we had to have teams picking up the phones and we saw an intense increase in bookings," Joana Soeiro, hotel manager of the Pestana Palace Hotel, tells CGTN Europe.

The hotel in Lisbon, which was closed since February, has already seen a 15-fold increase in demand from what expected for this time of year.

"We notice the UK decision to add Portugal to its green list acted as an endorsement for other countries, as a vote of confidence," Soeiro says.

The type of visitors choosing Portugal for vacations has changed. New clients include visitors from Spain, Italy and Scandinavian countries. However, important markets like the U.S. and Brazil are still left out. But the government hopes the EU will open its external borders soon.

"The United States was our fourth biggest market, now its eighth. Brazil was fifth now it's almost out of our top 10," says Bernardo Correia de Barros, President of the Tourism Board in Cascais, a beachside town outside Lisbon

"We don't depend on these markets but they're a very important market for us, so we are looking forward for these intergovernmental negotiations," he says, referring to the upcoming EU meetings on travel. Although the number of reservations continues to grow, bookings are volatile and subject to changes as the pandemic progresses. Correia de Barros believes Portugal won't see a full economic recovery in 2021. "Last year was catastrophic. We are going through our worst crisis, it's like we went back 40 years," he says.

"It will be difficult to compensate last year's losses in 2021. But tourists are looking for beach destinations and contact with nature, and I think Portugal has a great advantage internationally," he adds.


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