From pre-packaged trips to the sun to holistic yoga retreats

Was it in the 1970s the place to be for beach holidays and golf, now it’s also about adventure, eco and meditation. Enjoy the Algarve investigates how tourism has developed in Portugal, particularly in its southernmost region. 

See the original article in Enjoy the Algarve – magazine August 2017


It has always been a place with sun, sea and lovely beaches. But only in the last 50 years or so, the south of Portugal has turned into a must-visit holiday destination for foreigners. Which is logical, as international leisure tourism itself is a recent invention. Although the first all-inclusive group holiday was already organised in 1841 (by pioneer Thomas Cook, as can be read here) it wasn’t until the 1960s that mass tourism really started.

No rain in Portugal, but tourists pour in

Before that time, most people who took their holidays in Portugal, especially in the Cascais area, were the Portuguese themselves or extremely wealthy foreigners. Already in 1906, the country was advertised as ‘The shortest way between America and Europe’ by the Portuguese Society of Propaganda, and in 1911 the first Tourism Bureau was created. The Secretariado Nacional de Informação, Turismo e Cultura Popular (NSI) marketed Portugal as a sunny region in the 1950s, as can be seen in the picture that was created by Nuno Costa in 1954 (see side note in the original article). One of Portugal’s oldest tourist posters comes with the slogan ‘No rain in Portugal, but tourists pour in’. This indeed happened en masse in the 1960s, after the country’s dictator António Salazar allowed hotels to be built in order to bring in money from abroad.

This development of mass tourism turned previously unknown Algarvian fishing villages such as Albufeira into must-visit destinations. Countryside had to make way for high rise hotels and water parks that catered to the wave of foreign visitors, the majority of them coming from the UK. After Faro airport was opened in 1965, it went even faster and in 1970 the first Algarve Regional Tourist Board was established. True, the Algarve didn’t have cosmopolitan cities or highbrow cultural art museums, but instead it had a lot of rural markets and folkloric festivals. Above all, it was sun-soaked. And it had golf.

Picture below, courtesy of Archaeology Municipal Museum Albufeira, shows the village a couple of decades ago

Hitting balls with 38˚C? Not so ace

In 1966, the first grass golf course opened in the Algarve, the Penina, which was designed by Henry Cotton. Now, there are over 40 courses in this region, which has been voted ‘Best Golf Destination’ numerous times; not only because of the courses, but also due to the scenery, climate and good value for money. In the first three months of 2017, nearly 328,000 rounds of golf were played in the Algarve, mostly by foreigners. Contrary to the tourists who come for summer sun and beaches, golfers don’t really fancy hitting their balls when it’s 38˚C in the shade and thus take advantage of the mild weather in spring, autumn and winter. Starting with the Penina, which was quickly followed by other courses to tee off, particularly in the area around Quinta de Lago and Vale de Lobo, from the ‘70s golf started to provide Portugal’s southernmost region with whole year round tourists.

The combination of golf and seaside tourism brought in serious money. This didn’t go unnoticed and in 1986, the Portuguese Tourism Bureau stated a promotional campaign that focussed on the country being more than just a ‘sea, sun and sand’ destination. This example of place branding proposed another view of Portugal which included diverse landscapes, nightlife and other attractions. With tourism becoming a main source of income, this industry became more organised, with strategic plans that all had the aim of expanding the country’s popularity among foreign visitors. In 2006, the Ministry of Economy and Innovation published a new National Strategic Plan for Tourism (PENT) (see side note), which states ‘tourism is a priority strategic sector for Portugal’. In its 136 pages, the challenges (which include a high degree of seasonality and constraints in terms of air connections) are mentioned, as well as guidelines and projects to help ‘re-enhancing the Algarve region’.

Fly to the sun for €22.99 (or splurge and spend €540 on one night’s sleep)

In March 2010, the constraints on air connections mentioned in the PENT report (see side note) weren’t much of a problem anymore. Ryanair decided to base some of its aircraft in Faro, making the Algarve even more of an accessible hub. Now the Irish low-cost airline flies to 35 destinations from Faro Airport, which has just gotten a new terminal building and can now deal with 3,000 passengers per hour. Also other affordable airlines such as EasyJet, Jet2 and FlyBe currently allow you to fly to the Algarve and back for the price you’d normally pay for a meal with wine in your home country. And when you’re here, there’s no reason to spend an awful lot either as the Algarve has again been named the best-value destination in the world for British travellers (according to Post Office Travel Money’s 2017 report). You don’t have to stay on a budget though; you could also go on a €1250 luxury yacht cruise to the Benagil cave, take a helicopter tour for €1.650 per hour or stay in a €540 per night prestige suite.

There’s supposed to be a video of the Algarve Tourism Board celebrating 45 years here. If you want to see it, check the original article in our online magazine.

Goodbye postcards, hello selfies

Both vacationing and pre-holiday planning have been made easier, especially since the beginning of the 21st century. Travelling has gotten more and more convenient. In Portugal, you pay with euros or your credit card, almost everyone speaks English, and unless you’re in the middle of nowhere (read: somewhere in the remote countryside) phone coverage and internet is all available 24/7. No need to buy and write a postcard either, just make a picture with your smartphone and post it on social media. Being able to see the exact destination on Google Earth does take a bit of the element of discovery away, but hey, it’s quite handy. And there are enough online blogs and magazines to tell you where to go and, more importantly, what to do there.

Because nowadays, it’s not only ‘been there, seen that’. Yes, you have to tick these boxes, and make that selfie with the Ponta da Piedade in the background, but you also have to experience something. Just coming home with a nice tan and an azulejo-shaped fridge magnet as a souvenir isn’t enough anymore. In the last few decades, the focus of tourism has shifted from ‘being’ to ‘doing’. Nowadays it’s all about creating memories and learning new skills while you’re on holiday. Whether that’s playing golf in Vale do Lobo (pictured below), mixing cocktails in Vilamoura, surfing on the west coast or gathering your own seafood in the Ria Formosa. Preferably it should be something that involves the local culture, to show the people back home that you’re actually a ‘traveller’ instead of a ‘tourist’, which has become a bit of a dirty word in some circles.

21st century tourism: not wanting to do touristy things

So we go and explore ‘authentic’, ‘original’, ‘untouched’ and ‘unspoiled’ destinations. Rather drink a bica at a local café than a Starbucks Frappuccino. Not a global food chain, but that unknown restaurant somewhere hidden high in the mountains, which doesn’t have a menu in seven different languages and pictures. We want to be special, not part of a busload. And to boldly go where no tourist has gone before (or at least where they aren’t at the moment). So people drive inland for a few dozen kilometres and go hiking in the Serra de Caldeirão (or some other countryside region). And in the high season, they visit Ilha Deserta instead of Albufeira’s Praia da Oura.

Wanting a feeling of authenticity also reflects on what we buy and do on holiday. Souvenirs should be locally produced, rural areas are visited, and old handicrafts become hip again. We learn about potteryPortuguese water dogs or how to make tibornas. Another type of experience is the adventurous one. In the 21st century it sometimes seems like you haven’t properly been on holiday if you haven’t been diving with sharks, jumping out of a perfectly functioning airplane or throwing yourself from a platform at 50m height with an elastic band tied to your feet. Apart from the shark diving, it’s all possible in the Algarve. And also rock climbing, karting, doing a high ropes coursebuggy touring (pictured below), ecokart landsailingziplining and of course surfing and other water sports, from flyboarding to coasteering.

11 million people per year

Sun, sea, golf, creative and adventurous experiences, a whole range of both affordable and expensive accommodations, restaurants, and activities. Plus the fact that it’s a very safe destination. All reasons to pay Portugal a visit. Which is what loads of people do; all travel-related revenues, which have been steadily growing since 2011, account for about 10% of Portugal’s gross domestic product (GDP). Some numbers: in 2015, over 10 million foreign visitors stayed in Portuguese hotels, according to the National Statistics Institute (INE). Hotel revenues that year? Nearly 2.5 billion euros. In 2016 the amount of foreign hotel visitors went up to almost 11 million and the revenues soared to 2.9 billion euros. No wonder that in the past two years, nearly 100 new hotels have opened in the country. Add to this everyone who doesn’t stay in a hotel but instead spends their holiday in a guesthouse, bed & breakfast, hostel or camping, and these numbers will skyrocket. As all expats know, in the Algarve, the population literally triples in summer time. The tourist prognosis for 2017 and 2018? Even higher.

More tourists, more trash

There’s a downside to all these visitors though. And that’s the trash they leave behind. Like cigarette butts, beer bottles and ice-cream wrappers. As marine biologist and founder of Straw Patrol Carla Lourenço said about the state of Praia de Faro while cleaning this beach back in December 2016:  ““During summer it’s awful because of tourism. I don’t know if it’s because people know that the beach is cleaned every night in the high season and therefore they just don’t care, but if you’d do this in August instead of December, you’d collect way more garbage.” (To put this into perspective: in the winter we already collected 42 kilos of rubbish in under and hour with just 20 volunteers – pictured below). Luckily we’re becoming increasingly aware of the fact that we humans are very well on our way to wrecking this planet completely. This awareness doesn’t only show in changing attitudes in our daily lives, but also on holiday.

Eco-tourism: conservation & sustainability

This increasing environmental awareness has led to a new sort of tourism: eco-tourism, which intends to support conservation efforts and observe wildlife. Instead of going to a theme park to watch the dolphins swimming around in large aquariums, people now prefer to see these marine creatures in their own habitat and head out on the Atlantic Ocean in a boat. Birds are also preferably spotted in the wild in the Algarve, either by taking a hike in the salt pans or natural reserves, or by visiting the annual bird festival in Sagres.

Some people go even more ecological by helping a hand at one of the hundreds Workaway permaculture projects (pictured below), where you grow your own vegetables without using pesticides. Because the responsible tourist anno 2017 wants eco. It’s now trendy to buy locally produced fruits and vegetables from regional markets. Have a glass of biologic wine with that nice view. Stay in a hotel that’s mainly made out of cork. Take care not to disturb the seahorses when snorkelling. Choose for a sailing or canoe tour in the Ria Formosa instead of going with a motorboat.

Yurt is the new 5 star hotel

Apart from doing something good, the tourist still wants to relax. And seeing as we’re normally online 24/7, eyes glued to our computer screen, on holiday we want to switch off. Say Namaste to yoga resorts and health retreats. Increasing stress at work means that free time should be rejuvenating, allowing us to come back home a bit less stressed. So we book spa treatments, holistic massages and lessons on breathing techniques. To truly get away from it all we might even consider staying in a place without internet or leave our mobile phone at home. On a detox holiday, the usual happy hour sangria or fancy cocktails make place for healthy smoothies and freshly squeezed juice from oranges you’ve just picked from the garden.

This new luxury isn’t so much about materialism as it is about self-enrichment. Marble stairs and golden bath tubs are nice, but it’s more important anno 2017 to feel fulfilled and happy. We want to feel at one with nature and reconnect with ourselves, as this is something we tend to forget in our hectic day to day life. So we book a €2223 wellness and nutrition programme with a nature walk and meditation classes. Or pay a bit less money to stare at the sea, swing in a hammock, work on a rural farm and camp very basic. We walk with donkeys and rent hippy campers in the hope they take us back to the ‘no worries’ feeling. Instead of staying in a five star hotel, an increasing percentage of holidaymakers now prefer to sleep in a tipi tent or yurt under thousands of stars.

The good thing is that most of these experiences (well, apart from those mega-expensive spa packages) aren’t only enriching, but also very affordable. In order to meditate you just need to close your eyes and find a place to sit. Literally every Algarvian dog shelter is looking for volunteers to take their canines on a nature walk. Portuguese locals will happily tell you about their favourite picnic place or their secret piece of coastline if you ask nicely. And all these beaches are free, as are the nature parks. The biggest and most beautiful swimming pool (aka the Atlantic Ocean) doesn’t charge you – and it doesn’t have any opening times either. Watching the most incredible views (try seeing the sun set in the sea at Praia do Amado (pictured below) for picture perfect scenery), costs you exactly zero euros. Despite the fact that it’s literally a billion euro industry, some of the tourists’ most favourite things to do in the Algarve are all free. Enjoy!


See the original article in Enjoy the Algarve – magazine August 2017

Posted in Features.