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Portugal, in full disarray, worries about its tourist season

Portugal entered the final phase of its sanitary deconfinement plan this weekend, but until foreign tourists return, the sector fears that it will miss a second summer season.

“I have the feeling of starting from scratch,” sighs Judite Gomes, who did not immediately reopen her restaurant in Alfama, the most emblematic neighborhood of old Lisbon.

As “at the beginning there will be few customers”, this 63-year-old businesswoman prefers to wait until Monday to reopen two of the three establishments she owns on the same street in the picturesque neighborhood, with flowery balconies, cobbled squares and winding alleys.

He decided to start by opening the restaurant with typical cuisine and the house of fado, a traditional Lisbon musical genre, leaving his handicraft shop closed for now.

With his huge bunch of keys in hand, he goes from one place to another, whether it is to clean, rearrange tables or review the layout to respect the new rules of distancing.

After having had to lay off ten of the thirteen employees it had before the pandemic, it is now betting on a more local clientele, even if it means lowering its prices.

– “The most difficult period” –

In 2020, Portugal, where tourism accounts for more than 10% of GDP, lost three out of four tourists, or some 17 million visitors. Only in Lisbon, an emblematic destination, revenues fell 76% over the past year.

And, with lockdown at the beginning of the year, the number of nights booked by hotels fell 80% in the first quarter. In the same period, the Portuguese GDP fell 5.4% in one year, mainly due to the “significant reduction in foreign tourism,” the National Statistics Institute (INE) said on Friday.

“The sector went through the most difficult period in its history,” says the main hospitality employers’ association, which welcomed the government decision to start on Saturday, two days earlier than planned, the last stage of the lack of refinement, particularly with the reopening of the land border with Spain or the extension of the opening hours of cafes and restaurants.

“This decision will provide new stimulus” to the sector, the Association of Hotels, Restaurants and Similar Establishments of Portugal (AHRESP) said in a press release.

However, travel restrictions to Portugal, which authorize only trips considered “essential”, have been extended until at least mid-May, the government reported on Saturday.

– “Tourists will return” –

In an attempt to save the tourist season, Portugal, which holds the rotating six-month presidency of the Council of the European Union, advocates for the rapid adoption of a health passport that facilitates travel within the EU.

This European health certificate, which passed a key stage on Thursday after being validated by MEPs, is still the subject of negotiations, but Brussels wants it to be in force before the end of June.

“We must act without delay” to “take decisive measures in favor of tourism, just before the beginning of summer,” the Secretary of State for European Affairs, Ana Paula Zacarias, told the European Parliament.

In Alfama, the return of foreign tourists is key for traditional entrepreneurs such as Judite Gomes, but also for some investors who, despite the health situation, have opted to maintain their projects.

Such is the case of a luxury hotel that will open in June in an old renovated mansion. “We are convinced that tourists will return,” its director, Luis Casqueira, told AFP. “After this period of confinement, people will want to travel.”

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