After enduring a strict winter lockdown and a spring that saw a gradual reopening but lousy weather to pass it, the first British tourists to Portugal since the country was on the ‘green list’ for travel without quarantine were thrilled. by the thrill of escaping, even if their movements were not as carefree as the previous summers.
“We just wanted to go somewhere other than London, basically,” singer and songwriter Celeste Waite, 27, said as she walked up a hilly street in Lisbon’s Alfama district on Saturday with Sonny Hall, 22, model and poet.
“It’s good to finally get back to normal,” said Karen Kaur, 35, of Kent, England, after she and Jay Singh, 38, took shots of ginjinha, a cherry liqueur, of a street vendor in Praça da Figueira, a large square in the center of town.
But UK travelers who expected some sort of pre-pandemic travel experience found something different in Lisbon on the first weekend it reopened to them. While the Portuguese capital still offered its signature food, museums, picturesque views and attractions, strict mask and curfew rules reminded visitors that this wouldn’t be an unhindered escape.
The opening weekend for the British offered a glimpse of what a broader return to international travel might look like for others, including vaccinated Americans when they are welcomed to Europe this summer: a mix of joy, relief and sometimes awkward interactions as cultures converge after a year of disparate pandemic experiences.
Portugal has long been one of Britain’s favorite tourist destinations, with scenic city breaks in Lisbon and Porto, as well as beachfront restaurants and hotels catering to British tourists in the seaside resort of Cascais and the Algarve, known for its attractive beaches, all within a three hour flight. More than 2.1 million people visited Britain in 2019, the most of any country except Spain, according to Turismo de Portugal, the national tourism board.
Today, Portugal is one of Britain’s only tourist destinations. Earlier in May, Britain included Portugal on its “green list” of 12 countries and territories that residents could travel to from May 17 without quarantine for up to 10 days upon return. Most of the other places on the green list do not accept tourists or are not major destinations.
Prices for flights to Portugal soared after the announcement. But flying now means accepting costly and sometimes confusing extra steps, underscoring the temporary nature of the reopening of international travel.
Tourists must complete several forms and submit a negative PCR test carried out less than 72 hours before the flight. Before returning to Britain, they must take another test within 72 hours of their flight and prove that they have booked a third test to take on the second day of their return to Britain. The tests add up to hundreds of dollars per person, for many more than the cost of theft.
Some tourists on a British Airways flight from London last Saturday said the extra stages were painful but had to leave Britain after a harsh winter. From December to the end of March, the country experienced one of the strictest and longest national shutdowns in the world, with socialization only allowed through walks in the cold with another person. Pubs and restaurants only opened for alfresco dining in mid-April, and overnight trips inside the country were only allowed last week.
“No one else is going, so I rubbed shoulders with my friends,” said Anna De Pascalis, 23, before boarding a flight to Lisbon with her mother, Julie De Pascalis. “Everyone is pretty jealous.
After a winter of rising coronavirus cases, Portugal has fallen to a few hundred single-digit cases and deaths per day since the end of March. But there is a disparity in vaccinations against Covid-19: around 36% of Portuguese have received at least one dose of a vaccine, compared to around 57% of those in the UK.
Silvia Olivença, the owner of the gastronomic tours company Oh! My Cod in Lisbon, said she was not worried about being inside with unmasked tourists while eating, although she heard other Portuguese worried that returning foreigners could threaten the low number of cases in Portugal, despite the negative test of tourists before they can fly.
“You have people thinking about it, of course,” she said. But, she added: “I think people in general are quite happy to see tourism coming back.”
Maybe a month ago she was running one tour a week. Now it’s up to 10 a week, with around 70% of her bookings in Britain, she said. Besides British tourists, Portugal also welcomed visitors from the European Union again.
For Sara Guerreiro, who owns a ceramics store at the Feira da Ladra flea market in the winding Alfama neighborhood, last Saturday was more of a tease of normality. Looking outside her shop, she saw perhaps 10% of the pre-pandemic foot traffic at the bi-weekly market, which sells various items to locals alongside artwork and knick-knacks to tourists.
But she said Lisbon could use a better balance in the number of tourists it welcomes, because “how it was before, it was also too much”.
Overall, a mere trickle of tourists have returned to Portugal so far compared to the pre-virus hordes. Those who made the trip were able to enjoy the city as few have done: without swarms of other tourists to jostle with.
In the ornate Praça do Comércio, a historic plaza usually crowded with visitors, only a few dozen lingered. You can easily take a wide-angle shot outside the Belém Tower, a popular landmark, at noon on Sunday with no one inside. The queue for the nearby Pastéis de Belém cream pies, usually an outside affair, passed in a few brief minutes on Sunday morning. In Tasco do Chico, renowned for its live fado music, a bar seat was available one minute before the start of the first performance on Saturday night.
In a bustling scene reminiscent of pre-pandemic freedom, tourists and locals converged on Saturday night in Bairro Alto, with bars and restaurants filled with revelers until the 10:30 p.m. curfew. Nicci Howson, 65, said she was surrounded by dancing Portuguese at Cervejaria do Bairro, a restaurant in that neighborhood, the first time she danced outside her house in a year.
“You could see the elation on people’s faces for letting go,” she said.
At 10:30 p.m., while some Portuguese might have been having dinner in normal times, the bars closed and sent groups of people dancing and singing together in the narrow streets, until they were chased away by the motorcycle police about five minutes. later. The revelers lingered in nearby Luís de Camões Square until 11:30 p.m., when officers dispersed the group.
But during the day there were no such crowds to contend with.
Mark Boulle, 38, of Oxford, England, said he usually tries to avoid crowds on a trip, so the trip was a dream in that regard. When he took a day trip to Sintra, a nearby town with palaces and castles ready for postcards, on Monday, “for the first half of the day I had pretty much the whole place to myself. “, did he declare.
But he was dismayed by the widespread use of masks outside in Lisbon – a radical change from behavior in Britain, where the government has never suggested wearing masks outside and most people don’t. It was a source of tension for both visitors and the Portuguese.
The use of masks outdoors is mandatory in Portugal, violators in some places, including beaches, face fines. At Castelo de São Jorge, an 11th-century castle with sweeping views of the city, a security guard roamed the grounds outside, asking the few tourists to put on masks while standing away from others. A bookseller at an open-air market in Baixa complained that tourists should conform to local attitudes and customs regarding masks, instead of bringing their own ideas abroad.
But Mr. Boulle said he wanted the sun on his face. As he was going to buy his ticket at the Hieronymites Monastery, a popular tourist attraction, he recalls, a security guard stopped him before he could buy his ticket, asking him to put on a mask.
Mr. Boulle replied that he suffered from asthma and that he could not wear one because he would have difficulty breathing. “It’s not true, but I just wanted to see,” he said. “In England you can still say that. Bad luck, as the security guard insisted.
Frederico Almeida, general manager of Hotel Albatroz in the nearby seaside town of Cascais, said he and his staff had to remind British visitors of the requirements.
Despite these problems, he is happy to see British tourists again. They are the main market in the region, he said, and their return has been swift. The 42-room hotel was about 20% occupied two weeks ago; now it’s up to about 80 percent.
“All of a sudden, in the last two weeks, it’s like we’ve come back to normalcy,” he said. “That’s wonderful.”
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