“Don’t call the funeral homes (—) don’t let the earth eat me alive”, Herberto Hélder
For several weeks now, TV newscasts and statistics have been saturated by horrifying news about the number of flights, the occupation of tourist resorts, perhaps even the sale of beach towels. I am not sure when it happened but I saw a report on an public channel that confirmed it last week: tourism, is dead.
This news affected me particularly. Like so many Portuguese, besides liking to travel on their own, I live from tourism because I work in a company that manages short-term rentals all over the country. And I admit, this death would be something to immerse myself in deep mourning. It would be, were it not for the comfort I feel when I see so many people coming to the funeral.
I became suspicious when I was booking holidays for myself. From Gerês to Évora, Afife to Sesimbra, I found all properties almost completely packed, many already beyond August. Not only that, but from the coast to the countryside, the daily rates were not only high, but seemed to rise with every refresh.
According to my colleagues who manage revenue at LovelyStay, the situation is the same in the Algarve, even if booking habits have changed. People are favouring longer stays, making last-minute reservations and opting for spaces that grant some isolation. Nevertheless, occupancy rates double those of last year for the month of June, with prices for July identical to those of 2019, although with a slightly higher occupancy.
Unfortunately, the same is not true in Lisbon and Porto where daily prices are similar to those of the low season. However, even for these cities we have been receiving dozens of reservations a day for more than 4 weeks, with occupancy close to 70% for July in both the capital and the Undefeated city.
After all, what is going on?
In part, and according to data from the Transparent platform, tourist apartments are the preferred ones in the recovery due to the greater control of contacts. Similarly, it’s also understandable that people are fleeing the urban centres with the highest population density. Even so, an occupancy rate of 70% would indicate that there is considerable demand after all. Have those who survived the last 3 months benefited from less competition? With less than 2% of ads eliminated from Airbnb in Portugal, I don’t think so.
It seems to me that it is essential to recognise that domestic tourism has not recovered, but rather has grown, and is representing a significant share of bookings, particularly those that are ensuring returns as good or higher than those of 2019 on Algarve properties or rural tourism throughout the country, although the economic power of these visitors may not participate in local businesses in the same way.
And no, it’s not just the Portuguese who seem to want to attend the funeral services. Every day we are receiving at my office in Germany, England, Belgium and France. But it was only when I saw the reservation of an Afghan that I finally realised: this wake makes no sense.
It would be intellectually dishonest to argue that we are not living a huge crisis in our sector. We do. But, by telling its story incompletely, we run the risk of contributing to our own precariousness. I give an obvious but representative example: after all, why are prices so low in a city like Lisbon, where occupancy rates are already so high for July? The collective despair that has caused all owners to lower prices too much for fear of having their houses empty by September may have something to do with it.
With each horrifying report, we get more scared and the lower we keep expectations as well as prices, destroying the dynamic fluctuations that would match supply and demand, and that would maximize both the owners’ and the country’s revenues.
It is time to reflect, not on the disaster of the last months, but on how to address this new wave of demand. Not only is it possible, but several are already doing so. We must put an end to the fear that has understandably permeated public sentiment and look at reality with some sobriety, though cautiously. If we do not do this, we run the risk of being ourselves the agents promoting who this crisis which will in fact wipe out all the tourist institutions.
It seems that people still want to visit Portugal. Our cities remain culturally, climatically and financially attractive to the Portuguese as well as to visitors from all over Europe. More than ever, Portugal is no longer just Lisbon, Porto and the Algarve, and almost unnoticed, it has reconquered itself. We have a unique opportunity to reposition and rebuild our sector.
So I tell you no, tourism is not dead. Let’s not bury it alive.
Written by Miguel Marinho Soares