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‘I’m filled with hope’: cash-strapped Algarve awaits return of UK tourists | Portugal

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Tatiana stands by the counter of the souvenir shop where she works in downtown Faro, with little in the way of company besides the postcard racks, the shelves of trinkets and towels, and an all too familiar silence.

“Only three customers have come into the shop so far today,” says Tatiana, who lost her job at Faro’s airport last October after her contract was not renewed.

Outside, the cobbled streets of the Algarve tourist city are similarly quiet – but probably not for much longer. A week after the UK government added Portugal to its travel “green list”, Lisbon announced that British visitors would be welcomed back from Monday as long as they provided a negative PCR test.

The news has been greeted with relief and excitement by those who work in one of the country’s most tourism-dependent regions.

Portugal, which was praised for its speedy and far-sighted response to the first wave of the coronavirus, was pitched into crisis at the beginning of this year, logging more than 16,000 cases a day in a population of just 10.2 million people. In an effort to save the country’s paralysed health system from collapse, the government imposed a strict nationwide lockdown and banned foreign visitors, leaving the tourism sector struggling to survive.

The Algarve bore the brunt of the losses: in February, the number of people registered at the regions’s job centres was up 70% on the previous year. Without income, many families found themselves dependent on charity.

The scale of their plight becomes painfully clear at the Algarve food bank, where forklift trucks beep as they unload cases of cucumbers and potatoes from a large truck. Men in yellow vests weigh the goods while a group of women, surrounded by ceiling-tall piles of milk and rice, prepare baskets for distribution. The food they gather will help feed 30,000 families.

“Before the pandemic, we distributed around 20 to 25 tonnes in food baskets,” says Nuno Cabrita Alves, the food bank’s founder and president. “Now, in May, we’re distributing 92 tonnes of food. This has never happened before.”

Outside the warehouse, Cabrita Alves points at several pickup trucks being loaded with baskets. “Olhão, Tavira, Quarteira, Loulé,” he says, reeling off their destinations. Once there, local groups will help distribute the food among those in need.

“It’s so much worse now, we have many more people [asking for help],” says José Quadros as he loads milk and chocolate on to a truck bound for a Christian institution in Quarteira. “It’s tough, but there’s nothing we can do. I can’t give my own money because I can barely get by myself. But it’s tough because this could be us tomorrow.”

Vans are loaded with goods from the Algarve food bank to be distributed to those in need. Photograph: Mia Alberti

As he heads off, another organisation’s truck pulls into his spot, joining an assembly line that continues throughout the morning.

Maps, a charity that used to focus on supporting homeless people and those with HIV, has also stepped in to help, and now operates as a soup kitchen serving up to 250 hot meals a day.

“We live in an area that lives off tourism,” says the charity’s vice-president, Elsa Morais Cardoso. “But tourism stopped and no one was prepared for it. Suddenly people saw themselves without any income – and that was when the hunger arrived.”

Among those waiting in line for the soup kitchen to open is Maria José, who has been unemployed since losing her job at a fishmonger in Faro last year. “I’ve been unemployed before, but it was nothing like this,” she says. “I have a child to take care of, plus my sick mother, and I have rent and bills to pay.”

As Cardoso says, the pandemic has been no respecter of pre-Covid class divides, and Maps is now helping many middle-class families with children.

“These are people who never imagined they would be standing in line for a food basket,” she says. “They’ve always worked, but now they stopped having money to buy milk, yoghurt and nappies.”

While the Algarve has always suffered from seasonal unemployment and a precarious work environment – a situation exacerbated by the pandemic – Cardoso says the current situation is totally different: “We have entire families going hungry.”

Cabrita Alves worries that the crisis will not die down until 2024, a fear shared by Paula Matias, the Faro coordinator for Refood, an NGO that works to cut food waste by redistributing leftover food from restaurants and supermarkets. Refood is helping 428 people – a fourfold increase on pre-pandemic demand – and the requests for assistance are still coming in.

“In my opinion, this is just the start,” says Matias, as volunteers pack plastic containers with pastries, bread and roast chicken. “Now things are opening up and improving a bit, but it’s not enough because the damage has been done in people’s lives and businesses. We are going to go through an economic crisis that’s never been seen before.”

The Portuguese government hopes that its vaccination programme will head off a further economic crisis and has already handed out €233m (£200m) in financial aid to companies in the Algarve.

João Fernandes, president of the regional tourism board, says a new financial package is on the way. However, like most people in the Algarve, he is not betting on a speedy recovery.

“Even if we have a good result from now until the rest of the year, it won’t erase the fall in revenues for families and companies, so it will take some time for companies to recover their capital.”

Closed shops
Closed shops on a quiet street in Faro. Photograph: Mia Alberti

Bookings from the UK have tripled since Portugal was added to the green list, leading Fernandes and others to cross their fingers – not least because neighbouring Spain remains on the amber list, meaning travellers returning to the UK will have to quarantine for 10 days and take two Covid tests.

“We’re seeing quite interesting levels of demand, especially because some of our competitors were not included in the green list,” says Fernandes. “So every indicator points to a robust demand from the UK.”

He and most of the people who live and work in the Algarve hope the worst has passed and that British visitors will arrive with deep enthusiasm and still deeper pockets. But the optimism is guarded. “There’s a renewed excitement,” says Fernandes. “But I don’t have a crystal ball.”

Despite the pain of the past year – not to mention Portugal’s continuing state of emergency – Friday’s announcement was the best news many people in and around Faro had received in almost a year.

Carla Lacerda, who was let go from her job at a duty-free shop in Faro airport last August, is a single mother who has been relying on Refood to help feed her nine-year-old son and five-year-old daughter. She cannot make ends meet on the €620 she receives each month in unemployment and child benefits.

She is praying that the return of Britons will lead to a call from the duty-free shop for her and her 35 colleagues. “They’ll need staff,” she says. “I don’t think people understand the amount of British clients we had at the airport; sometimes there would be five flights arriving at the same time and we had no rest.”

After what seems like an eternity, Lacerda is beginning to feel the stirrings of a long-forgotten emotion. “I’m filled with a lot of hope,” she says. “Hope is always the last to die.”

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