Britain’s decision to relegate Portugal to the amber travel list left Francina Pinheiro totally exasperated. “We’ve done everything by the book here,” said Pinheiro, the owner of a cafe beside Torre dos Clérigos, one of Porto’s landmark sights, as customers arrived for lunch on Friday.
“We sanitise everything, we’ve reduced our table numbers. All so we can welcome our friends from overseas.
“And, pah, now they shut the door on us!”
The usually perky Pinheiro was still shaking her head over the decision. After months in the doldrums, the sight of tourists recently returning to her pavement tables and sipping on a fino (small beer) or trying her prized bolinhos (fishcakes) had put a skip in her step.
Now British visitors are set to join her American and Brazilian customers – another important source of income – in disappearing from Porto’s streets. That leaves her falling back on local customers, who, loyal as they may be, tend to content themselves with a €0.95 cup of black coffee.
The damage comes after months in which the centre of the city, usually heaving with weekend visitors, has felt morgue-like in its stillness. Only in the last couple of months has life begun to return to the streets as residents venture back to work and restrictions begin to ease.
A large part of the frustration felt by local business owners is because of the efforts they have made to comply with Covid safety precautions. Added to that is that feeling that Porto is paying for increases in infection rates elsewhere in the country. In a stinging riposte to the UK’s unexpected move, the city’s tourism chief described the downgrading as “regrettable”, “unfair and “unacceptable”.
“There is no reason for this decision, which surprises the Portuguese government [and which] causes serious damage to tourism,” said Luís Pedro Martins, president of the Porto and north of Portugal tourism board.
Porto is not as dependent on sun-hungry British tourists as the country’s coastal hotspots, such as the Algarve and Madeira. Nor does its laidback vibe attract the hip, party-going crowd that Lisbon might. Even so, its beautiful Unesco-certified historic centre and famed wine cellars still make it much in demand, especially among an older – and wealthier – clientele. Such are its quiet charms that it was recently named Europe’s top city-break destination.
The fact that the city was swarming with British football fans last weekend only increases the bitter sense of disappointment. Seeing the city’s hotels full once again and the bars overflowing made it feel like the good times might at last be coming back. But it also set alarm bells ringing, and many Porto residents also blame their own government for opening the door to 16,000 or so Manchester City and Chelsea fans for last weekend’s Champions League final.
Initially, residents were assured that ticket-holders for the final would be bussed directly from the airport to the venue at Porto FC’s Dragão stadium, and then back again.
“That never happened,” said Sergio Miranda, who owns a local tour agency. “It was a lie from the start. As much as the fans drinking in the street and not wearing masks, that is what annoys many of us.”
People’s frustration is also tinged with anger. After months of dutifully adhering to mask-wearing and other strict Covid restrictions, many had pictured a bumper summer tourist season as the prize for their sacrifices. It is not as if infection numbers are even very high in Porto, many add. Although national figures have crept up marginally in recent weeks (the R number now stands at 1.08), most new cases are concentrated 300km to the south in Lisbon.
“The [case] numbers here are lower than in the UK,” said Ingrid Koeck, a partner at Torel Boutiques, which boasts two hotels and an apartment complex in the city. “On the day of the announcement, Porto did not register a single Covid-related death.”
The tourist board repeats the view of many that Porto is being unfairly punished because of “pressure” in the UK to hit its own 21 June target for relaxing lockdown.
Even if the country can climb back into the green list soon, the damage has already been done. “With Portugal being on the UK green list and the summer kicking in, we persuaded ourselves that the worst might be over,” said José Santos, a Porto-based airline purser who has seen his workload plummet during the pandemic. “Now, who knows?”