The dangers of one of the safest countries in the world

Currently, Portugal is one of the five most peaceful countries in this world. However, it wasn’t always this way. Over time, Arab invasions, earthquakes and dictatorships have made way for pickpockets, reckless drivers and cheap drinks. Still, the feeling of saudade remains.

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

Some pickpockets, a couple of car break-ins, and a few drug pushers. These are the dangers and annoyances you’re likely to face in Portugal nowadays. Basically the same as in most other European countries. In the Algarve, add to this a dose of sunburn in summer time and the hazards you just read about on page 6. Plus of course the possibility of being woken up in the middle of the night by drunken partygoers if you live in the centre of Lagos, Albufeira or Portimão in high season. Apart from when you actually get caught under tonnes of rocks or drown while swimming, those risks aren’t exactly high on the life-threatening scale. Which makes sense, as Portugal is nowadays considered one of the five safest countries in the world.


Nice sunny climate + low chance of getting murdered = ideal holiday destination

Portugal ranks on place 5 in the Global Peace Index (GPI) 2016, right behind Iceland, Denmark, Austria and New Zealand. This tenth edition of the GPI (see here), which is produced by the Institute of Economics and Peace, ranks 163 independent states and territories according to their level of peacefulness. To get to this ranking, 23 indicators were taken into account, divided over three broad themes: the level of safety and security in society, the extent of domestic or international conflict, and the degree of militarisation.

Portugal’s leap of nine places to end up on place 5 in 2016 was the largest improvement of peacefulness in Europe, which is already the safest region in the world. The reason, according to the GPI: “continuing improvements in the context of the country’s gradual return to political normality following its EU/ IMF economic and financial adjustment process.” Notable Portuguese advancements were recorded across dimensions such as the likelihood of violent demonstrations, the Political Terror Scale and political instability. What this fifth place means for Portugal? Well, it’s certainly good news. According to the GPI report “countries with high Positive Peace are more likely to maintain their stability and adapt and recover from both internal and external shocks.” The high safety ranking will further improve the economy by attracting investors and companies.

It will also make the country a popular choice for foreign visitors, and, seeing as tourism accounts for around 10% of Portugal’s gross domestic product (GDP), this will boost the economy even more. Just like Portugal’s steady rise in the yearly GPI rankings, figures from Statistics Portugal reveal that tourism has also increased in the last few years. In 2015, the number of foreign visitors surpassed 10 million for the first time. Hotel revenues that year? Almost 2.5 billion euros. Reasons enough to open more than 50 new hotels. Combine a nice sunny climate with a low chance of getting gunned down by a moron and you’ve got yourself an ideal holiday destination.


A rocky past: dictatorship and a massive earthquake

However, Portugal wasn’t always that peaceful. Starting with the Roman invasion in the third century BC, the region has been a place of battles and wars even before the Kingdom of Portugal was founded. From the Germanic invasions around 400 to the Muslim conquest in 711 and then on to finally conquering the Algarve back from the Moors in 1249. The Arab influence can still be seen everywhere; in the Algarve, especially in Silves. Briefly skipping the ages of discoveries and naval exploration in which Portugal became a world power, the country fell into decline in the beginning of the 20th century. The economy was destroyed, the regime was unstable (45 changes of government between 1910 and 1926) and the country was on the brink of bankruptcy. This, and other causes, led to the coup in 1926 and afterwards to the dictatorship of António Salazar.

Life under Salazar’s dictatorial regime was horrible for many people. There was a wide-reaching censorship and fear of the secret security agency, the Polícia Internacional e de Defesa do Estado (PIDE), which had the power to investigate, detain and arrest anyone who was believed to be plotting against the State. Stability came in 1986, when Portugal joined the EC, but the effects of this fascist regime on Portugal’s inhabitants are still visible nowadays. Just look at the relative risk-averse culture, the huge respect for the police, and the fact that some Portuguese people, especially the older generation, are wary to share personal details but instead prefer to spy on you from behind their window curtains. As the OECD’s How’s Life? Report (see here) shows, in Portugal trust in other people lies below the European average.


Another drama in Portugal’s history was the 1755 earthquake, which happened on November 1, All Saints Day (the picture above shows Lisbon prior to the tragedy). This earthquake with an estimated magnitude of 8.7 on the Richter scale was followed by massive tsunamis. Together, these natural disasters killed tens of thousands of people. In the Algarve, although not as bad as in Lisbon, the situation was also horrible, with the village of Boliqueime getting completely destroyed.

The earthquake, which direct costs were estimated at between 32-48% of the Portuguese gross domestic product (GDP), reduced cathedrals to rubble and destroyed about 85% of Lisbon’s buildings. It was also the start of the development of seismology and earthquake engineering, as nobody wanted a repetition of this disaster. Will it happen again? It might, as a study featured in a 2004 National Geographic article discusses. Want to know the current seismic activity? Check out the website of the Instituto Português do Mar e da Atmosfera (see here, also great for the forest fire risk and the weather forecast).



Where’s your wallet?

Possible natural disasters like a second big earthquake aside, there’s not much to be afraid of in Portugal nowadays. Whereas London, Paris, Brussels and Berlin have all been suffering from terrorist attacks in the last few years, this hasn’t yet happened in Lisbon. According to the UK’s foreign office, there’s ‘an underlying threat from terrorism’ in Portugal, meaning attacks are unlikely, whereas France, for example, is classed as having a high terrorism threat. This has to do with the fact that Portugal doesn’t have as much political influence in Europe as the UK, France, Belgium or Germany. The country is a bit of a non-player in the political field and therefore considered a safe haven, especially when compared to other, more instable destinations with a similar climate such as Turkey and Tunisia.

This shows again in the increase of tourists, but also in the foreign travel advice given to those who plan on visiting Portugal. The UK government mainly urges you to beware of street crime and don’t keep all your money and passports in the same place. It also claims that most visits of the about 2.6 million Brits that visited Portugal in 2016 were trouble-free. The advice of the US government comes down to the same thing: trying to avoid pick-pockets and purse-snatchers by keeping your eyes open when using public transport. As for the Canadians, they also predominantly warn for petty crimes.

Apart from the location of your wallet, in Portugal you should also be aware of the traffic. Anyone who’s ever driven along the N125 in the Algarve won’t be surprised by the fact that Portugal has one of the highest road accident rates in Europe. Or, as travel bible Lonely Planet puts it: “Once behind the wheel of a car, the otherwise mild-mannered Portuguese change personality. Macho driving, such as tailgating at high speeds and overtaking on blind corners, is all too common.” Still, when compared to the rest of the world, the situation isn’t that bad. When looking at the road fatalities per year per 100,000 inhabitants (data by the WHO, see here), Portugal has 7.8. That’s worse than countries like Spain (3.7), the UK (2.9) and the Netherlands (3.4), but next to nothing compared with Angola (26.9), Dominican Republic (29.3), or Iran (32.1).


Seeing the beauty of sadness

The strange thing is that Portugal, despite being the fifth most peaceful country in the world, only holds place 89 when it comes to happiness. This was revealed by the 2017 World Happiness Report (see here), a survey of the state of global happiness, which has ranked 155 countries according to their feeling of well-being. This pretty bad score probably has something to do with saudade, the characteristically Portuguese feeling of longing, melancholy or nostalgia that’s best understood when listening to Fado (picture above by Jimmy Baikovicius). Rather than trying to cheer themselves up, the Portuguese are content with their discontentment. They cherish their saudade, and just like seeing the beauty in an Algarvian sunset or a perfect wave, they see the beauty of sadness.

The OECD Better Life Initiative sees it less romantic. This research among 36 countries believes there’s another reason for this relative unhappiness. The earnings in Portugal, just like the household net adjusted disposable income per capita, are well below OECD average, whereas the long-term unemployment rate and labour market insecurity are higher than average, as shows the OECD’s How’s Life? Report. Even though money can’t buy happiness, it’s important when wanting to achieve higher living standards; thus earning not a lot is one of the main reasons life satisfaction in Portugal is one of the lowest, when compared to the other countries investigated by the OECD.

The upside of this: the lower incomes make Portugal cheap for foreigners. The Algarve, which receives over 40% of Portugal’s tourist arrivals, has again been named the best-value destination in the world. At least, for British travellers. That’s what Post Office Travel Money found out when they bought a dinner for two with wine, sun cream, insect repellent and various drinks at 44 popular holiday destinations all over the world. In the Algarve, this year the total price came to the equivalent of £33.36. Great news for Britons looking for a cheap sunny holiday. For the rest of us: more risk of being woken up in the middle of the night by drunken partygoers, especially in the centre of Lagos, Albufeira and Portimão. Then again, better than being woken up by a massive earthquake or gunfire. Very long story short: Portugal is a great place to be, stop complaining and enjoy it.


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

Posted in Features.