Tuesday, April 9, 2024

Azores 2024 - Tourism on the Island

Today was all administration. We dropped Maria off at her oldest sister’s house for a visit then went back and picked up the men and went to the bank to finish straightening out our account, which took over two hours. Went back to get Maria then drove to downtown Ponta Delgada to meet with a lawyer and review Tia Ana’s situation with her will, mental state, house, property, and caregiver Ana Margarida. From there we drove to Pico da Pedra and visited with Tia Ana at the care home where she lives. Finally, we completed our family dining tour (on day 12) and had dinner with Manuela and Antonio at their home in Sao Vicente and saw the lush and fruitful lemon tree in their garden. Here, we are eight parts family, and two parts tourist. This is why we love it here.

So today I will instead write about tourism. Sao Miguel’s quest to expand tourism on the island really began in 2008, when the 
Portas Do Mar cruise ship terminal was unveiled. It was a daring and bold project from a small island nation in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean. I remember being in the small shopping centre downtown during one of our visits leading up to this date. There, they had a scale model of what the complex was going to look like. The marina area was under construction and the entire harbour was an unrecognizable mess of barges, concrete, machinery, and workers. The model blew my mind. It just didn’t seem possible that such a small place would be able to visualize, design, execute, and support this massive facility. And it wasn’t just a cruise ship terminal – they also built a huge new 670 slip marina, a walkable jetty (full of restaurants, cafes, shops, and even a bowling alley), two swimming pools – one natural ocean pool integrated into the boardwalk, open year-round, and free to anybody, and one a paid swimming complex with multiple pools. Beyond this they also built an outdoor theatre and an incredible underground parking garage that integrates seamlessly into the waterfront, running along the entire span of the curved Avenida, providing 344 perfectly disguised parking spots, and multiple stairwell exits that pop you up right in the middle of the incredible waterfront. The audacity of the project still amazes every time we visit and the design is masterful, appropriate, durable, graceful, and honours both the ocean and the land.


It is now sixteen years later. What has been the result of this bold experiment in tourism? It took a long time to get going. Remember, before this, the main tourism here was Azorean ex-patriates returning to visit their families, and a few early movers, mainly German, with most living near the western end of the island in Mosteiros. During our first visit after Portas do Marhad opened I remember checking the cruise ship schedule and there was typically about one arrival per week or fewer. And I think it was like that for a long time. But this week, there is one arriving nearly every day, and there will be three ships in port this coming Thursday. This has driven a huge number of tourists to the island, but these visitors only stop for about eight hours or so. I suspect though that many of these people return on their own for future trips after getting a glimpse of this wonders here.

Another change that happened around 2015 was the liberalization of the airline industry. The carrier monopoly was broken up and low cost airlines like Ryanair and EasyJet could now fly here, bringing a whole new tourist demographic to the island.


In 2023 in the Azores, there were 3.8 million overnight stays and 1.2 million visitors, a massive increase from the previous year and far, far more than what they had in 2008 and before. This mirrors the significant increases in tourism in Portugal as a whole including continental Portugal and Madeira. I think it’s fair to say the experiment has succeeded in attracting many tourists to the archipelago.


I’ve asked many of the cousins what they think of this increase in tourism and how it’s impacted their lives. Overall, most seem to think it’s a good thing, but haven’t seen any direct benefits because of it. They are willing to share and show off their beautiful islands. One of the cousins does have strong concerns about it, not against the tourists themselves, but because the  benefits are being realized by few instead of many.


As for us, I was expecting the worse, but I’ve been pleasantly surprised by what I’ve seen. Outside of the main tourist areas, you don’t see that many visitors. But the prime sites are busy, especially Sete Cidades and Furnas and I suspect locals probably avoid these places now during peak tourist season. We are here in mid-April so I can only assume it is much, much busier in the summer, and I expect the tourism will continue to grow here. Fortunately, the pleasures of the island are found in small places, just as much as in the popular sites, and there is so much to explore and experience that I feel there is room to grow without it ruining what’s here.


Everywhere I look here, I see opportunity. Tourists arrive with pockets full of money and the locals who embrace it and look for ways to provide them with unique experiences and products will prosper. The problem is, the locals are not used to doing this, so it takes a person with entrepreneurial spirit, a risk-taker, and I fear many of these people will come from outside the Azores – returning ex-patriates, folks from the continent, or other parts of Europe. For example, there is now a craft brewery on the island, run by an Azorean couple who left here in 1998 to live in the US and recently returned to start this business after seeing the potential with non-Azorean eyes.

My hope is that some of the cousins here will find a way to harness the tourism potential and prosper. It will not be easy, but it is possible. And they deserve it.

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