When the pandemic takes sustenance from a region

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As in the fable of the cicada and the ant, those who live in the Algarve know that they have to hoard during the summer, before facing the rigors of winter. Between March and October, it is time for the Algarve to ‘roll up their sleeves’, taking advantage of the preference of those who visit them. This time, however, the covid-19 has turned the world inside out.
In a region heavily dependent on tourism – perhaps the sector most affected by the pandemic – the economic and social crisis is beginning to be felt, settling in, unstoppable, and not anticipating anything good for the low season months that are hopelessly approaching . Without foreign tourists, a generous slice now eliminated from the equation, many doors were left open. While others had to close.

The suspension of business indefinitely had the immediate effect of ‘pushing’ thousands of people into unemployment: according to data released by the Institute of Employment and Professional Training (IEFP), unemployment in the region rose 232% in June, compared to the same period last year. IEFP records show that, in that month, there were 26 140 unemployed people in the Algarve, but the local authorities believe in a clearly higher number (after counting those who are not registered with the State services).

The situation takes on dramatic contours in some municipalities, such as Albufeira, where at the lowest point of the statistics, seen in May, an increase of almost six times in the unemployed was identified compared to May 2019: there were less than a thousand, last year, and now there are 5642. In Silves, Portimão, Loulé and Vila do Bispo there was also a huge increase in unemployment, which tripled in these municipalities.

Nor will the shameful resumption of July and August allow for recovery, let alone mitigate the current context. SOL did not stop at Excel sheets and went down to the streets of the Algarve to get to know real life stories, of ‘flesh and blood’ people who saw their jobs dependent on seasonality suspended, with nothing they could do to reverse the situation – characters forced to play a role that now places them on the other side of La Fontaine’s history.

Helena Carmo, 47 years

Managing partner of Cordial Tours, a travel agency that is dedicated to organizing group trips to the main tourist spots in the country, Helena Carmo knew early that 2020 would be a bad time. “We work, above all, with the markets of Germany, Austria, Belgium, France and Australia. In March, from the moment the flights were suspended, we immediately knew that things were not going to be the same as in previous years”.

In 2019, the company earned about one million euros. This year, “revenues are practically zero”, he admits. At stake is your salary and that of your two business partners.

Obligations, on the other hand, remain – such as the payment of expenses arising from the activity itself. And almost five months after the beginning of the confinement, the company has already found itself in the need to free itself from some ‘rings’. “We will have to sell the 200 square meter office located in Praia da Rocha [Portimão]. We do it only to pay debts to suppliers, which have been accumulating in this period, and to refund the money to customers who had to cancel their trips “, he explains. The solution is, for now,” to work from home “, since the crisis still has no deadline to end.

“Our peak season started in March and continued until June. Then, we had a lot of work in September and October,” says Helena, adding (or risking) in an uncertain tone: “We are still waiting for a miracle to try to resume the activity this year, but we know it will be very difficult “.

As for support, the response to requests made to Turismo de Portugal came in the form of six thousand euros, to cover immediate expenses. “Six thousand euros, for a company that earned a million in the previous year. It is a quick dressing to treat a broken leg,” he says.

Without recipes, Helena remains to try to envision the future beyond the pandemic. Arrive when you arrive: “We are in a very complicated situation, which we cannot control. It is inglorious and, at times, desperate, because no matter how dynamic or good ideas I have, the truth is that, at this moment, my hands are tied, dependent on strength It remains to try to support expenses, reduce costs, so that you can resume full activity when everything is over “, he concludes.

Nicole Soares, 25 years

Professional freelance makeup artist, Nicole Soares had no more pages in her diary to point out the markings of women – more foreign than Portuguese – who arrived in the Algarve resorting to their services, in search of their best version, whether for a wedding, a party or a photo or video session.

After experiences in Lisbon and London, Nicole had returned to her homeland to exercise her passion. The pandemic, however, changed her plans, leaving her practically out of work. “My peak season is between March and October, and this year I had already scheduled close to 60 weddings, mainly from foreigners. Now, there are about four in September. I hope they will be held, but even those are not 100% guaranteed” , he explains. After all, Nicole was counting on adding more than three thousand euros in profit in the three summer months, but she was now forced to review the calculations. “If you can get close to 800 euros it is already good”, he confesses.

In the face of adversity, without substantial income, Nicole, however, did not give up, looking for (and building) new opportunities and solutions. While waiting for the resumption, he returned to work at the same beach shop, in Alvor (Portimão), where he spent many hours in his youth. And this month, he begins to train at a professional school of aesthetics and hairdressing in Portimão. “I looked for alternatives. My goal was to dedicate myself full time to my activity starting this year, but this whole situation forced me to postpone my plans, and maybe delay them for another year or two”, regrets.

Even so, Nicole continues to “keep in touch with customers”, both with Portuguese and foreigners. “People have told me that they have not canceled their trips to the Algarve, but only postponed them for a few months or a year. There are many foreigners who still want to get married here”, he says.

In times of pandemic (and social distance is advisable), the closeness between Nicole and the clients could possibly not facilitate the recovery. Do people have reason to fear? “No,” he says. “Hygiene care in professional make-up already existed before the pandemic. We already made a careful separation of materials, and we also disinfected them. The only change was the use of the mask”, he explains.

Joel Silva, 39 years

Hotel receptionist, Joel Silva lives and works between Leiria and Vila Real de Santo António, where, for nine years, he has worked in a hotel during the high season. Since living in the Algarve in the summer, this is the first time that he has not been entitled to an employment contract. “I’ve been working for the Algarve for nine years, always on a seasonal basis, but this time they didn’t count on me”, he says.

Joel lives free, without a family. And he usually takes advantage of the money he earns in the Algarve to later be able to travel, usually between October and December. The computer engineer also does not depend only on this salary – often exercising his other profession in any corner of the world -, but its absence anticipates difficulties in the winter. And a profound change in the most immediate plans. “I was obviously counting on this money, which, for me, is always right, important for reorganizing my life and doing what I like. But what can I say? The hotel where I work currently has an occupancy rate of 10%, when it was 80% or 90% last year. My bosses don’t need me, and they can’t even pay me. I have to understand that hotel owners have to give priority to house workers, those who spend the whole year here “, he describes.
And what are you going to do? “Well, the Algarve, this year, is lost”, he says, adding that it is not worth looking for miraculous solutions. “Taking into account the situation, I can only return home, save, and wait patiently for everything to return to normal. And, of course, I hope to be able to return next year, with everything working normally,” he says.

Still in the Algarve these days, Joel returns to Leiria this week. “I’m going to try to get back to what I call my winter job and, at this stage, to survive. And I’m going to have to give up my plans, a vacation abroad that will have to be postponed. It looks like 2020 was made to stay at home, isn’t it? “he asks, with a smile that is a little sad, a little resigned.

“People can’t take it without help”

Elidérico Viegas, president of the Association of Hotels and Tourist Enterprises of the Algarve (AHETA), has given voice to the concerns of Tourism and the region. Contacted by SOL, the official confirms that “there are thousands of people in difficulties in the Algarve”, stories that do not fit on the pages of a newspaper, and admits that if quick and concrete measures are not taken, things will get worse, and much, in September, October and November. “I just believe that things will be able to normalize after Easter 2021, but people cannot endure this situation all these months, without help,” he says. Elidérico Viegas believes that specific measures will be needed in the short term to deal with the crisis. “A plan must be created, with its own budget and management, to recover tourism, and to endure the difficulties that entrepreneurs and workers are going through. It is a commitment that has already been made by the Minister of Economy, Pedro Siza Vieira, and corroborated by the Prime Minister, António Costa. I count on the Government to follow through on what was promised, and quickly “, he concludes.

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