Meeting Joao Ministro was one of the highlights of my recent visit of the Algarve in Southern Portugal, the first destination I explored as part of TPBO on TOUR. Joao gave me the opportunity to understand the region’s huge potential, but also to get a feeling for the many challenges it is facing. His work is especially valuable in that he connects the dots between regional development, talent attraction, tourism and sustainability.
In this interview, Joao tells us about the rural development of the Algarve, the current state of its sustainability as destination, and what needs to be done to keep it attractive and competitive as place to live – especially the rural, inland areas.
Joao, you are widely recognized as one of the Algarve’s leading promotors of ecotourism in support of local development. Do you remember what brought you to the topic? Who or what triggered your interest in tourism and rural communities?
I’ve been involved for more than 25 years in NGO’s environmental activities. During this period, I was part of several projects, I managed many activities and got a close contact with the territory and local communities.
I realized that there were – and are – real discrepancies in the region, where tourism is the main economic activity. Discrepancies regarding nature and culture conservation, local development, social cohesion, landscape management and even economic impact.
I also realized that money was not the problem. Algarve have been receiving funding from the European Union for decades in order to develop the region as a whole. But many problems are still there.
Then, in 2005, I managed a project called Via Algarviana, a long distance walking path, supported by EU funding, in order to attract green economy to the countryside and the inner regions of Algarve (and it is working!). The main objective is to reduce the depopulation phenomenon of this inland territory.
For 6 years I “dived” into the territory, got in contact with many people living there, the local culture and economical activities and I realized that there is much to do. Many problems to solve, but also many opportunities to “grab” – namely in sustainable tourism development.
All these things triggered in me a strong interest for action. And of course, I really enjoy this territory!
Tourism in Portugal’s Algarve region is booming. How does this growth in visitor arrivals affect the sustainable development of the region as a whole?
It’s a complex question. Algarve has been growing economically, with the tourism industry. It’s among the richest regions in Portugal. But, at the same time, some of the poorest councils in Portugal are also in Algarve. So, it is a paradoxical situation.
Many direct and indirect factors affecting sustainability in Algarve are related to the tourism industry. One main factor is related to the construction business. Between the 1970-90’s, when tourism was booming in Algarve, the construction was almost unstoppable. During this period, we built, transformed and destroyed a big part of our south coastline. Thousands of houses to sell or rent.
The councils were happy, of course. More houses means more taxes and more income for the city councils. So they approved most of it.
During the global crisis, that started in 2008, many big projects stopped (several companies went bankrupt). But now they are back again. And moving to the countryside and inland areas. Big resorts, private condominiums, golf courses, hotels and all the infrastructure needed for those are slowly showing up in the region.
Of course, most modern developments are greener and more “eco”. But for all of them there’s a need for land, water supply, waste management, sewage treatment, energy supply, road accesses, and so on.
Even protected areas are not totally “protected”. Some projects are happening inside Natura 2000 sites, for example. This brought – and is still bringing – big challenges to the region’s sustainability.
There are other factors – perhaps less prominent – which also pose difficulties to the sustainable regional development of the Algarve. For example: because the region depends mostly on tourism, the prices of houses are high. The housing speculation is very high, inside cities and even in the countryside.
So, if we want young people to move back to the countryside, to bring new life to those tiny villages which are now almost deserted, this situation is creating serious problems – finding affordable accommodation is almost impossible. Prices are absurd. Even for ruins!
Another issue: employment. With all the tourism growth in the last years, many small businesses have tremendous problems in finding people to work there. Tourism absorbs most of them. And most of the time has precarious working conditions: the majority of employment which only pays the minimum national salary is in tourism and associated services. So, there is also a social issue that must be included in the regional discussion.
Of course, tourism is good and brings many opportunities. But it must be well planned and managed. At a regional level and also at local level. There are many issues related with this industry. Tourists don’t occupy the territory homogeneously. And also, not the same way year-round. Some places during some periods are intensively occupied and others not. Some places need more tourism – a different tourism – others might have too much already.
All those issues must be part of the regional development discussion here in the Algarve. I hope that in the near future we can have better, more sustainable planning and development strategies for tourism in the region. The good news: sustainability is becoming more popular nowadays.
Despite this growth in popularity of Algarve as destination, rural communities and villages suffer from young people moving away. To your mind, what could and should be done to reverse this tendency and ensure healthy rural communities?
Keeping healthy communities in the countryside is important for several reasons. First, because there are important economic activities that need the presence of people (forestry, farming, honey production, among others). And there are, of course, many opportunities to explore linked to those.
Second, there is a rich cultural knowledge and heritage, strongly related with the rural communities living there, that we must preserve. Not only folkloric issues, but also old and traditional uses in farming activity, for example, such as the preservation of local seeds.
Third, the landscape and natural habitats need the presence of human activity there. One example: in the last years we had huge forest fires. Unfortunately, with numerous human casualties. One of the causes behind this phenomenon is the lack of land management. The absence of many farming activities, like grazing – that were fundamental in the past to keep clean areas – contributed significantly to the problem. Now, the government has arranged special financial support for grazing in these rural areas…
What to do? Two main issues are fundamental: employment (jobs) and accommodation/habitation.
There are many opportunities in these regions. The life quality here is amazing. Nice weather, good local food, tranquillity, nice people. So, to attract people you must prepare the territory to host entrepreneurs, business people, creatives, among others.
There’s a need for some basic infrastructures, especially good wi-fi connection. And areas for offices / company incubation. Accommodation is a more problematic issue, as I mentioned before. But it’s structural. And, of course, you need a long-term strategy for these areas.
Having visited Algarve myself, I find the destination lacking behind in sustainability, and suffering from seasonality. How do your various projects contribute to making it more sustainable?
Our activities are mostly related with nature and culture. And many of them are more interesting during spring, autumn and even in winter time. So, we are more active in those periods out of summer – the tourism high season.
Also, most of our activities are related to natural areas, countryside, small rural villages and involve special local people, living in the inland territories. So, we try to bring people into a different Algarve, more genuine and authentic, in order to add value to many of those ancestral and important activities and also to spread the tourism affluence to other sites in Algarve.
And, of course, we try the best we can to create responsible activities and experiences, connecting the economic, social and ecological aspects.
Across the globe we observe a growing divide between urban and rural. Would you say place branding can help to make rural regions more attractive as places to live and work?
Absolutely. An efficient development strategy for these territories must include a very good and strong marketing and branding scheme. The economic factor is still a very important issue, for sure, a decisive one in most cases. But apart from this there are many other things making these places attractive.
There are many reasons to choose these regions which are becoming more important in our modern societies: environmental quality (air, water, light), tranquillity, security, access to local and organic products, close contact to nature. There are good things happening in these places. But most of the times people don’t know how to move there, where to look and how to establish their profession. So, a good information, promotion and branding plan should be part of the strategy to bring people back to these areas.
You have recently started focusing on creative tourism and offering artisan experiences, in addition to the more traditional ecotourism “products”, such as birdwatching and hiking. Why?
Well, in our company we manage a craft development project named TASA. It’s a public initiative, started by a regional institution (CCDR Algarve) in order to give a future to the old handmade craft traditions (ex. basketry, pottery).
Algarve is a very rich region in cultural heritage. But much of the immaterial heritage, including the handmade craft, is getting lost. Mostly because there isn’t a sustainable vision for it and a lack of young generations working on them. And I can understand why. The handmade crafts have been ignored and depreciated for many years. It’s still considered a “poor” activity. And product pricing is also very undervalued.
But we believe that there is still a future for these crafts. So, in this project we work with more than 45 artisans and designers from many different small villages in Algarve, in order to add value to the traditional crafts by producing modern but useful objects with them.
The idea is to make craft a future profession. It’s a complex and difficult project, mostly because it’s managed all by our own (including all costs) and there are still many obstacles to go through. But it’s starting to show promising results.
And in this process of making craft sustainable, tourism has an important role. That’s how we introduce the Creative Tourism in our offer. Apart of making objects and selling them, we also promote workshops, residencies and tourism programs where people can see, touch and learn some of the old handmade craft techniques we have in the region. A real experience with local people, getting to know their way of life. Not only do we introduce a new motivation to visit Algarve by facilitating such experiences, but also we support the local economy and help to preserve these old traditions, by attracting new people to keep them alive.
Your thoughts on the current state of “Brand Algarve” – its international reputation and also perceptions within the region?
Algarve is quite popular around the globe. Mostly in Europe, but becoming more known in the USA or Canada, for example.
The first thing people think about when they hear the name “Algarve” is sun and beautiful beaches. That’s good and true, of course. But there are many other reasons to visit Algarve: a region with an old and diverse history and culture, great food (Mediterranean gastronomy), great hiking places, natural areas (almost 40% of all Algarve is protected by nature conservation legislation!), bird watching hotspots, biking and cycling paths, great surfing spots, among others.
For many people Algarve is considered a mass tourism destination (which is partly true). But this happens in a very small part of the territory. There are many places to discover and enjoy. And that’s the challenge for the next years: to brand Algarve as a diverse destiny, not only great for sun and beach, but also for nature lovers, sporty and active tourists, cultural, etc. This necessity is not only about having more tourists all over the year, but also a tourism industry which is more sustainable and responsible.
Which trends do you observe with regard to destination development, management and marketing in rural Portugal?
There is clearly a growing intervention by the tourism institutions towards the cultural and natural resources in Portugal. Gastronomy, history, cultural heritage and biodiversity, with all associated activities (namely hiking, biking, cycling, surfing, wine tasting, among many others) are becoming more and more attractions in their own right, especially in rural areas.
The explanation for this new focus is related with some changes in our national tourism development policy. For the last 10 years, the national and regional tourism institutions have been supporting new tourism marketing approaches and new product development, not only to reduce the seasonality but also to support territory cohesion and reveal new distinctive attractions.
National projects, such as Portuguese Trails, are a good example of this effort to promote a “new Portugal” – and Algarve – and to attract a different type of tourists.
Based on your experience of working with rural villages, which are the main challenges – pitfalls to avoid?
There isn’t an easy answer to this, or a specific solution. Each place is different. Even in a small region such as the Algarve, the rural area – including hilly regions and farming areas -, is much different and solutions might not be the same for each of them.
One thing we must understand and try to evaluate is the “recover capability”. It’s about what the place and the surrounding region has to offer. The opportunities, but also the existing conditions. Many places in inner rural Algarve that were occupied in the past by communities are nowadays unrecoverable. Many tinny villages we have in Algarve are going to be completely deserted in the next 10-20 years.
But those which still have basic conditions (that is, good access, some public services, restaurants, some accommodations, etc.) and resources (available farming areas, biodiversity, water courses, public structures, etc.) can be recovered. This means that they still have conditions to attract people and their projects, and to establish new residents in the existing communities.
Attracting the people to the Algarve is not difficult. But to ensure they have conditions to live and work there and to be happy is more demanding.
Of course, this is easier to say than to do. The difficult part is to make it happen. It takes time (too much time, unfortunately) and requires a strong engagement with the decision makers, politicians and institutions, namely universities. Unless there is a commitment of all parts to promote the rural and inland regions, it will be very difficult to restore them. It’s fundamental to recognize the importance of these regions – for tourism, forestry, nature preservation, leisure, and for better health conditions – and how to develop them in a sustainable, creative and innovative way.
Thank you, Joao.
More about the Algarve and other destinations visited as part of TPBO on Tour, here.