Britons rush to book trips to Portugal ahead of up-in-the-air summer season

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LISBON — The mailbox of a well-known hotel in the heart of Lisbon was bombarded with queries as soon as Britain announced it was including the country on its travel “green list” this summer.

Manuel Pinto, Mundial Hotel’s director, is over the moon that British holidaymakers, who are essential to Portugal’s tourism industry, will be able to return after a five-month travel ban, giving a much-needed boost to the struggling sector.

“I was delighted, not only on a personal level but for our country,” Pinto said, standing in Mundial’s rooftop bar, adding that British visitors had already booked around 4,000 room nights at the hotel this year.

Portugal was one of just 12 countries and territories to be added to Britain’s “green list,” allowing Britons to visit them from May 17 without needing to quarantine, but still requiring two COVID-19 tests – one before returning to the UK and one on arrival into the UK.

Travel search website Skyscanner said there was a 616% increase in bookings to Portugal last week compared to the previous one, prompting airlines to add capacity to existing routes and, in some cases, launch news ones to meet demand.

EasyJet and Ryanair have both added more flights to Portugal from the UK for this summer. EasyJet said it was putting up to 100,000 extra seats on routes over the May-October period, while Ryanair is adding 195,000 in May-June.

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Holiday company TUI said on Wednesday that demand for Portugal was so strong it planned to use its bigger 787 Dreamliner planes, which it tends to use for long haul trips, on UK-to-Portugal routes to add capacity.

Still, a tourism sector scarred by Britain’s last-minute changes to travel rules last summer and Christmas is braced for another turbulent year, and Portugal has yet to spell out exactly what rules would apply to Britons arriving.

Some executives said they were only too aware of how quickly the tide could turn again if coronavirus cases rose or governments changed their mind.

“I have to be cautious,” Chitra Stern, CEO of luxury hotel chain Martinhal, said. “People are still booking refundable rates.”

COMPETITIVE ADVANTAGE

Other popular holiday destinations for Britons like Spain and Cyprus are on the “amber list,” meaning travelers would need to quarantine for 10 days upon return and take two tests.

Tourism plays a crucial role in Portugal, representing around 15% of gross domestic product in 2019. But it suffered its worst year since the mid-1980s in 2020 as the coronavirus pandemic kept visitors away.

Last year, only 460,000 Britons visited Portugal, from 2 million the previous year.

Eliderico Viegas, president of Algarve hotel association AHETA, said hotel owners were aware they were benefiting from the fact that other countries faced greater restrictions.

“Our main competitors have been left out of the ‘green list’ for now,” he said. “It is a competitive advantage for us.”

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Britain’s Thomas Cook said bookings had tripled compared to a week ago, with trips to Portugal accounting for a majority of that rise.

Airbnb bookings also started increasing and British airline easyJet said UK bookings for Portugal surged after the announcement, although it declined to provide figures.

Yet the high cost of COVID-19 testing and limited availability of flights pushing up prices, combined with the fact that the pandemic is still present, means the summer season is hard to forecast, even for Portugal.

“It’s not just a matter of a recovery of traditional flying, it’s a complete reshaping,” travel consultant for Bain & Co, Geoffrey Weston, said. “That’s why this is so hard to judge.” (Additional reporting by Sarah Young in London and Laurence Frost in Paris; Writing by Victoria Waldersee and Catarina Demony; Editing by Ingrid Melander and Mike Collett-White)

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