British Tourists Return to Portugal, Unleashed but (Mostly) Masked

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After enduring a winter of strict lockdown, and a spring that saw a gradual reopening but lousy weather to spend it in, the first British tourists to Portugal since the country was “green-listed” for quarantine-free travel were elated by the thrill of escape, even if their trips were not quite as carefree as in past summers.

“We just wanted to go anywhere that wasn’t London, basically,” said the singer and songwriter Celeste Waite, 27, as she climbed a hilly street in Lisbon’s Alfama district last Saturday with Sonny Hall, 22, a model and poet.

“It’s been nice finally getting back to normal,” said Karen Kaur, 35, of Kent, England, after she and Jay Singh, 38, downed shots of ginjinha, a cherry liqueur, from a street vendor in Praça da Figueira, a large square in the city’s center.

But British travelers expecting a kind of pre-pandemic travel experience found something different in Lisbon during the first weekend it reopened to them. Though the Portuguese capital still offered its signature food, museums, picturesque vistas and attractions, stringent mask rules and curfews reminded visitors this would not be an unfettered escape.

The opening weekend for Britons offered a preview of what a broader return to international travel may look like for others, including vaccinated Americans when they are welcomed to Europe this summer: A mixture of joy, relief, and at times awkward interactions as cultures converge after a year of disparate pandemic experiences.

Portugal has long been among Britain’s favorite tourist destinations, with scenic city escapes in Lisbon and Porto, and beachside restaurants and hotels catering to British tourists in the coastal resort town of Cascais and the Algarve, known for its alluring beaches, all within a three-hour flight. More than 2.1 million people visited from Britain in 2019, the most from any country except Spain, according to Turismo de Portugal, the national tourist board.

Now, Portugal is one of Britain’s only tourist destinations. Earlier in May, Britain included Portugal on its “green list” of 12 countries and territories that residents could travel to from May 17 without quarantining for up to 10 days upon return. Most other green-listed places are either not accepting tourists or are not major destinations.

Prices for flights to Portugal spiked after the announcement. But flying now means accepting expensive, and, at times, confusing extra steps, highlighting the tentative nature of international travel’s reopening.

Tourists need to fill out multiple forms and submit a negative PCR test taken less than 72 hours before the flight. Before returning to Britain, they must take another test within 72 hours of their flight, and prove they have booked a third test to be taken on their second day back in Britain. The tests add up to hundreds of dollars per person, for many people exceeding the cost of the flight.

Some tourists on a British Airways flight from London last Saturday said the extra steps were a pain, but they needed to get out of Britain after a difficult winter. From December to late March, the country experienced one of the world’s strictest and longest nationwide lockdowns, with socializing permitted only through walks in the cold with one other person. Pubs and restaurants didn’t open for outdoor dining until mid-April, and overnight travel within the country wasn’t permitted until last week.

“No one else is going, so I’ve been rubbing it in with my friends,” said Anna De Pascalis, 23, before boarding a flight to Lisbon with her mother, Julie De Pascalis. “Everyone’s pretty jealous.”

After a winter of rising coronavirus cases, Portugal has been down to a few hundred cases and single-digit deaths per day since late March. But there is a disparity in inoculations against Covid-19: About 36 percent of Portuguese people have received at least one dose of a vaccine, compared to about 57 percent of those from the United Kingdom.

Silvia Olivença, the owner of the food tour company Oh! My Cod in Lisbon, said being indoors with unmasked tourists while eating does not worry her, though she’s heard concerns from other Portuguese people that the return of foreigners could threaten Portugal’s low case numbers, despite tourists testing negative before they can fly.

“You have people thinking about it, of course,” she said. But, she added: “I think people in general are quite happy to see the tourism come back.”

One month ago, she would run maybe one tour per week. Now it’s up to 10 per week, with about 70 percent of her bookings from Britain, she said. In addition to British tourists, Portugal has also welcomed back visitors from the European Union.

For Sara Guerreiro, who owns a ceramics shop in the Feira da Ladra flea market in the winding Alfama district, last Saturday was more of a tease of normality. Looking outside her shop, she saw maybe 10 percent of the pre-pandemic foot traffic through the twice-weekly market, which sells miscellaneous items to locals alongside artwork and trinkets to tourists.

But she said Lisbon could use a better balance in how many tourists it welcomes, because “how it was before was also too much.”

Overall, a mere trickle of tourists have returned to Portugal so far compared to the pre-virus hordes. Those who made the trip were able to enjoy the city as few have: without swarms of other tourists to jostle with.

At the ornate Praça do Comércio, a historic square typically packed with visitors, just a few dozen lingered. You could easily take a wide-angle photo outside Belém Tower, a popular landmark, at noon on Sunday with no other people in it. The line for custard tarts at nearby Pastéis de Belém, typically an out-the-door affair, passed in a few brief minutes Sunday morning. At Tasco do Chico, renowned for its live fado music, a spot at the bar was available one minute before Saturday night’s first performance began.

In one lively scene reminiscent of pre-pandemic freedom, tourists and locals alike converged Saturday night in Bairro Alto, with bars and restaurants packed with revelers until the 10:30 p.m. curfew. Nicci Howson, 65, said she was surrounded by Portuguese people dancing in Cervejaria do Bairro, a restaurant in that neighborhood, the first time she had danced outside her home in a year.

“You could see the elation on people’s faces to just let loose,” she said.

At 10:30 p.m., when some Portuguese might just be sitting down to dinner in normal times, the bars closed and sent packs of people dancing and singing tightly together in the narrow streets, until they were shooed away by police on motorcycles about five minutes later. The revelers lingered in the nearby Luís de Camões Square until 11:30 p.m., when officers dispersed the group.

But during the day, there were no such crowds to contend with.

Mark Boulle, 38, from Oxford, England, said he typically tries to avoid crowds while traveling, so the trip was in that respect a dream. When he took a day trip to Sintra, a nearby town with postcard-ready palaces and castles, on Monday, “for the first half of the day I virtually had the whole place to myself,” he said.

But he was dismayed by the widespread use of masks outdoors in Lisbon — a sharp departure from behaviors in Britain, where the government has never suggested wearing masks outside and most people do not. It was a source of tension for both visitors and the Portuguese.

Using masks outdoors is mandatory in Portugal, with violators in some locations, including beaches, facing fines. At the Castelo de São Jorge, an 11th century castle with sweeping views of the city, a security guard roamed the grounds outside, instructing the few tourists there to put masks on while standing far away from others. A bookseller at an open-air market in Baixa grumbled that the tourists ought to comply with local attitudes and customs about masks, instead of bringing their own ideas abroad.

But Mr. Boulle said he wanted the sun on his face. As he went to buy his ticket at the Jerónimos Monastery, a popular tourist attraction, he recalled, a security guard stopped him before he could buy his ticket, asking him to put a mask on.

Mr. Boulle replied that he has asthma, and he couldn’t wear one because he’d have trouble breathing. “That isn’t true, but I just wanted to see,” he said. “In England you can always say that.” No such luck, as the security guard insisted.

Frederico Almeida, the general manager of the Albatroz Hotel in the nearby beach town of Cascais, said he and his staff have had to remind visitors from Britain of the requirements.

Despite these issues, he’s happy to see British tourists again. They are the top market for the area, he said, and their return has been swift. The 42-room hotel was at about 20 percent occupancy two weeks ago; now it’s up to about 80 percent.

“All of a sudden, in the last two weeks, it’s as if we’ve turned back to normality,” he said. “It’s wonderful.”

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