When planning for a mini-holiday, many tourists visit popular European countries such as Italy, France or Spain. But if you’re looking for an out of the box vacation full of sun, beaches and glorious food, Portugal’s southern coastline should be at the top of your list.
With its cheap spending costs, beautiful weather, stunning beaches and rich culture, the Algarve is quickly becoming one of the most popular vacation spots across the continent and is notably referenced as ‘Europe’s hidden gem.’
However, the region was not always considered a popular tourist destination due to the fluctuating economy.
Back in 2011, the country had fallen into a debt crisis so big that they almost ran themselves bankrupt. The rapid increase in tourism over the last eight years has developed the region and effectively saved the country. But the growth may not be so positive as once perceived.
With the rapid increase of tourism in the area, it is becoming difficult for the Algarve to balance both the authentic Portuguese culture that drew the crowds of tourists to their region and also handle the numbers of people visiting every summer season.
Finding the perfect balance of the two will contribute will be key and it is not hard to notice the challenges the country faces when arriving for your vacation.
When I first arrived at Faro Airport, it was easy to notice how the city was trying to embrace the rise in tourism. Walking throughout the small terminal took only about 10-15 minutes and a string of coffee shops were scattered inside (most of which would have seemed out of place a decade ago).
The most obvious sight, however, was the waves of tour guide companies trying to get visitors to purchase excursion packages for their stay. Whether that be swimming with dolphins, going on wildlife tours or visiting different islands, there was a sea of sales representatives just waiting to persuade tourists like me. The only way I could make it through without opening my wallet was to walk past as fast as I could whilst avoiding eye contact at all costs.
After the airport, I made my way towards the bus station to take the 20-minute journey to the city centre. Having an early flight I was gifted with stunning views of blue skies, mountains, palm trees and felt an overall comfort and quickly understood why this is considered a special vacation destination in Europe before really diving into the city and history.
Once I arrived, I walked around the main square and saw remnants of some of the country’s previous leading economic industry: fishing. Between the jam-packed marina, fish mosaics along the ground and other sea-themed statues, it was obvious that the community in Faro was deeply connected to the sea.
Though there was an obvious contrast to the scene. A select few boats were tinier than the average and were clearly used for fishing expeditions while other, more luxurious boats, screamed ‘tourist.’
Other major tourist attractions are doing the same including the Municipal Museum, Faro Beach and the Cathedral de Faro all of which were consumed with foreigners being weighed down by the straps of their cameras.
Eduardo Conejero Campos, 35, is one of the locals who has noticed the change in the Algarve region over the last few years and says the increase in tourism has revived the region from a depression that consumed the entire population.
“Before tourism, the Algarve was kind of economically depressed. Most people were in with either fishing or farming and the area didn’t really have much industry. With tourism, a lot of people were able to improve the economic part of their life,” said Campos
“This was nice to see, really, because it made everything seem more cosmopolitan with the people from all over. It’s happening in most of the cities and now almost everyone can travel so many places that might not have had a big tourist industry before are growing very quick.”
After chatting by the pier, I made my way to one of Faro’s various hostels to drop off my bags and then explore the area a bit more to observe what other tourism factors stood out in the city.
One of the more popular areas was by the Antiga Fábrica Da Cerveja (old beer factory) and sits just a quick walk outside the old town. The bright yellow building still to this day stands strong and gives a quick glimpse inside Faro’s cultural history but something catches my attention.
This section of the city is also home to the dock where ferries make their trips out to the little islands surrounding the region and the strip is lined with more of those excursion companies trying to convince tourists to buy tickets for different activities.
Bruno Custodio is one of those workers. As a native of the Algarve region and a member of the Ilha Deserta team, Custodio (like Campos) told me that the city has really grown into a tourist-focused city.
The specific company he works for in particular is one example of how the area is trying to get tourists to enjoy more of the Algarve’s famous attractions: the wildlife and landscape.
“This company represents the deserted island, or Ilha Desertra, which is the most southern island in Portugal,” says Custodio.
“The place is very protected and it is important that we keep it that way with all the birds, the water, the shells and the plants: it is one of our special areas. ”
Now of course when doing research about your vacation destination you might see a name of an island pop of somewhere on google and Ilha Deserta certainly does.
The catch, however, is that the island is actually named Baretta Island and was renamed through the company to attract more tourists. Another example of how the region has had to adapt in order to engage more visitors.
After spending time in the city, eating the food, enjoying the landscape, working under the hot sun and talking to both Custodio and Campos, it is easy to comprehend why Faro (as well as other cities such as Lagos and Olhao) are becoming popular vacation destinations in the Algarve.
Problems and issues with growing tourism
But while the area maintains it’s preserved traditional Portuguese culture (thanks to the lack of tourism over the years) the recent boom comes with its own issues.
The two most problematic are the over-crowding in the summer months and the lack of housing and jobs for the locals in the area. The demographics of the city just does not seem to have enough space to support it.
Due to the economic downfall, the houses sit at around – euro so they are extremely affordable for vacationers who fell in love with the coastal region and everything about the Portuguese lifestyle.
Custodio explained that because so many are interested in buying vacation homes, it makes the real estate battle harder for the locals.
“At the moment you need flats for the residents in Faro and now most of the people are selling the houses to foreigners to use them as vacation houses. The people here find that with more tourists, plus all the students at the school, the housing is a difficult situation,”
Right beside the shack with Custodio, there was another example of how tourism may not be affecting the area as positively as once perceived. I found myself reading lots of graffiti in the area and some are requests from locals who don’t like tourism scene.
There are a few organizations however who are trying to combat the issues and still promote tourism in the area to improve on the economic crash from 2011.
One of them is 365Algarve and the other Algarve Tourism Bureau and they both focus on bringing in tourists to the region all year long rather than just in the peak summer months of June, July and August.
“The Algarve is now the biggest tourism region in the country but its mainly only known for its beaches, especially the sunny days during the summer,” says Anabela Afonso, the Commissioner of Culture Program 365Algarve.
Jeroen van Wiglen, the Managing Director of Interface Tourism/Algarve Tourism Bureau also emphasized the need for tourists to vacation all year round.
He also explained the importance of making sure different activities in the area are popular for tourists so nothing gets too over-crowded.
“In the beginning, tourism had a general perspective of offering relaxation on beaches and cultural exploration and was very focused on major hubs,” said Van Wiglen.
“Now the special interest tourism is far more prominent i.e. hiking & biking, gastronomy, festivals, music/art, cultural heritage, sports (scuba diving, and not to forget: golfing), as well as the Algarve as a business meeting destination in the MICE sector (Meetings, Incentives, Conferences and Events). It is much more diversified and requires much more niche-approach.”
Both the modern and traditional aspects of the Algarve are important for tourists and locals and while the changes being made in the area are drastic and rapid, they serve to improve the tourism industry in the future.
The key to making sure Portugal and the Algarve remain as a hidden gem for Europe is to find the right balance to keep the tradition and authenticity alive while also handling the massive amounts of tourists venturing west of Spain.