The Two Sides of the Algarve

An essay on ignorance and cultural awareness

Bidding farewell to a dystopian vision of oppressive British storm-clouds, I was greeted in Alvor in early October by welcoming, sunny skies to enjoy a week of sun, sea, sand, swimming, sangria, senhoritas, steaks, spaghetti and seafood. Beautiful, friendly, accessible, affordable and rich in cultural heritage, it is easy to see the draw of the Algarve.

The region of Portugal is one of Europe’s best-known travel destinations. Famous for its clean, warm waters, stunning beaches and long summers, in recent years it has become very popular with sun seekers from more northerly European countries, particularly those travelling from Britain, Ireland, France and Germany.

As one of those European travellers, I have been twice in the last three years. After two amazing trips to the Algarve, I would highly recommend it, however during my most recent trip I found myself increasingly aware of a dichotomy at the heart of the Algarve which too many travellers sadly seem blinkered to.

The old and new Algarve

Situated just above the northern hemisphere’s subtropical zone, and close to the Strait of Gibraltar, the Algarve is ideally positioned for summer sun. Along the coast, holiday makers sip Portuguese wine and dine on locally caught seafood, under glorious blue skies and in warm weather, for 6 or 7 months of the year. High rise luxury hotels with sea views and perfect swimming pools overlook the coastline, as the calm North Atlantic waters lap at sandy shores and coastal caves in this peaceful paradise. The native Portuguese informally refer to the two sides of the Algarve as the ‘old’ and ‘new’ Algarve. Named for its ever-changing architectural landscape, this coastal region is the new Algarve.

Inland of the idyllic beaches, the old Algarve is a vast and varied region of Portugal with a broad and interesting history, making it a fantastic travel destination for those looking for a cultural travel experience. In stark contrast to the capitalist modernity evident in the coastal regions, walking around the tiny villages of Querença and Alte in the inland Algarve feels demonstrably, yet beautifully, like stepping back in time.

The mountainous region is sparsely populated. Wine and honey are created using traditional techniques and local produce. Local farmers work the land by hand and extract cork cambium in a sustainable fashion from the cork oaks that dot the landscape, and the Medronho fruit is distilled to make Firewater brandy in family-run distilleries passed down through many generations. Just inland of the coast exists an older Algarve where swimming pools are a rare sight, and in many areas, high rise buildings are actually banned. Barely 20 miles from the popular resorts exists another side of the Algarve that many sun seekers will never experience.

The importance of tourism

There are no two ways about it: tourism drives the Algarve.

With over a hundred thousand beds available and over 3 million overnight stays registered in 2012 alone, hospitality is big business here. A steady stream of jobs created by (both foreign and domestic) tourism has ensured regular work for a high percentage of the region’s rapidly growing population. Most natives living in the Algarve are now employed by a business that has some connection to travel or tourism.

Some British journalists have written negatively about the growth of British and Irish regions of Spain and Portugal in recent years – and more generally on the juggernaut of tourism in southern Europe – but the truth is that the overwhelming success of the hotel network has given the Algarve a strong financial status that would not otherwise have existed. The ‘Little Britain’ culture definitely exists – and some of its criticism is well-earned – but it is wrong to suggest the development of the holiday industry has been unwelcome, or not in fact manufactured out of Portugal.

At a regional level, tourism has precipitated positive economic growth in the area to such an extent that decentralised capitalism is now practically synonymous with Portugal’s southernmost region; it is however important to remember that this is a relatively recent development.

Reflecting on the success of modern tourism becomes poignant when you consider that the country was living under the authoritarian regimes of the Estado Novo dictators António de Oliveira Salazar and Marcelo Caetano well into the mid-1970s. While a historian would rightly point out that the roots of modern hospitality were in fact born out of Salazar’s regime – which did welcome foreigners in the interests of propaganda – modern tourism has grown up by giving power back to the people. It has been the innovative entrepreneurship of Portuguese business owners seeking to embrace free market economics that has made Portugal a high income country. When the system works – and when northern Europeans flock in droves to the Algarve – we would do well to consider the facts before passing judgement too quickly.

The Algarve’s real dichotomy

There are many outward differences between the old inland Algarve and new coastal Algarve, but the geographical and cultural differences of the region are not the two sides of the Algarve I wish to highlight.

Tourism is now broadly interwoven with Algarvian culture, and for most residents the old and new parts of the Algarve are really one in the same. Many residents of the old Algarve commute to the coast daily to work in the tourist industry, some moving closer to the sand and sea when they are young, before moving to retire in the town of their birth.

No, the dichotomy I refer to is a little more esoteric. In my experience, it is a split in the actions and opinions of foreign travellers which really divides Algarvian tourism.

On one hand there are those who have made some conscious effort to understand a little about Portuguese culture and history before arrival (or at very least, have the good sense and courtesy to accept that they are in a place they know little about). On the other hand, Portugal’s south coast does seem to attract a large number of travellers who seem to expect Portugal to be a sunnier version of Brighton or Great Yarmouth, and for everyone there to speak fluent English.

“I’ve been sat here for three quarters of an hour and now she’s charged me for a burger I didn’t even get. For fuck sake, she can’t understand a fucking word I’m saying, can she? What the fuck do you want me to do?”

I sat for moment uncomfortably debating whether or not I should intervene as I tuned in on this aggressive Irish tourist complaining to two frightened Portuguese barmaids. As much as I found his confrontational attitude reprehensible, it was this Dubliner’s ignorance and supercilious arrogance that really made my blood boil.

“All Portuguese barmaids living and working in their country of birth should understand English!”

After the situation diffused itself without the need for my input, that was the thought I was left with.

As a general rule, I’ve found the native Portuguese working in Algarvian tourism to be phenomenal. Many bar staff can indeed speak English and German so fluently that it becomes almost an expectation, but that’s frankly no excuse for this kind of presumptuousness.

I met tour guides, cabbies and hotel staff there who were fluent in so many languages it made the 1.2 languages I can comprehend – English and (very basic GCSE level) French – seem truly shameful.

If these people were living and working in the UK, I don’t think it would be stretch to suggest that some could get highly paid jobs as translators or foreign liaisons. The reality is that the average net wage in Portugal is less than €1200 a month (2-3 times less than in the UK and Ireland). Even then, a nation’s average wage statistic is taken as the mean of a full gamut of very rich to very poor. Most people tending a bar or working at a hotel are more likely to be taking home somewhere in the region of €500 a month. I admittedly know nothing of the angry Dubliner’s background but – statistically speaking – it is likely he makes more in a week than the barmaid makes in a month (and that he would struggle to serve a customer in any non-native language).

There is no darkness but ignorance. William Shakespeare

Sadly, despite the success of tourism in Portugal, the income it generates is not at all well distributed back among the people. While home ownership rates are high (approaching 80%), wages are by far the lowest in any Western Europe country. The unfortunate truth is that I got the strong impression that our Irish friend was far more than just an anecdote. During my time in Portugal, this was just one of very many examples of ignorance I witnessed; more often than not, from British and Irish travellers.

The various attractions of the Algarve attract an equally varied group of inbound travellers. Some are there just to enjoy the sun or the beaches. Others travel to explore the country and experience the culture, be it by backpack or by suitcase. And a remarkable number of people go there simply to play golf! There are of course many other types of travellers, but these three groups make up the bulk of inbound overseas travel to the Algarve.

The British press is often quick to blame ignorance on sun-seeking holidaymakers, but I’m not so sure this is fair. As an independent backpacker it can be very easy to differentiate yourself from the “Brit abroad” label by compartmentalising blame on travellers you don’t identify with (such as golfers or beach loungers).

Venn diagram showing that ignorance in the Algarve is not easily pigeon-holed

While it would be fair to say that some of this uncouthness does come from the much written about stereotypes (and from the kind of people you would expect it from at home), my personal experience has been that there is a significant ignorant subset in all three groups.

Is there something inherent about the Algarve which invites and incites ignorance? Maybe a high level of acceptance and understanding of the English language puts travellers a little too at ease? Most wouldn’t expect the French or Germans to speak English at home, so why is this the case in Portugal? Perhaps our school syllabuses were so focused on anglicised history – both modern and ancient – that we broadly view Europe as a Christian, democratic continent, completely overlooking the long influence of the Islamic Moors and Caliphates over the Iberian Peninsula in ancient times, and authoritarian regimes in times recent enough to still affect many EU citizens? Is a kind of herd behaviour at play, where where bad behavior inspires more and more in a vicious cycle? Maybe a small degree of this mindset simply comes part and parcel with cheap travel?

I don’t profess to know the answer to these questions, but whatever the reasons, a change across all groups inbound travellers is much needed!

Expose, evolve and educate

The Algarve is rightly one of Europe’s top travel destinations, but the small-mindedness of a vocal minority does leave some Portuguese locals with a tainted impression of British and Irish travellers, and witnessing this first hand was probably the low point of both of my recent trips.

At one point we ended up sharing a very spacious minicab with a particularly short, fat and obnoxious lady who proceeded to whinge and moan about an imaginary lack of legroom for over an hour (I am over six feet tall and you could have sat a horse at my feet without any issues, no exaggeration, this cab was huge!). It was such an offensive tirade of waft and nonsense that after she left, the remaining passengers all felt the need to apologise to the Portuguese driver on behalf of the entire population of the British Isles.

"It's OK, I'm quite used to it" he replied, "my father always used to say that the best remedy for ignorance is silence."

After recalling a number of similar experiences of verbal and physical abuse, it was clear that he was indeed "used to it." It saddens me to think that this wise and intelligent man has come to expect a degree of ignorance from us.

This kind of behaviour is definitely the minority, and it is unlikely to ruin an otherwise amazing experience in a great location, but it is high time we addressed this head on.

With an ancestry and upbringing deeply rooted in both England and Ireland, I hate having to be an apologist for the cultural insensitivity of my peers. I want to be able to travel abroad and be proud of my heritage. The time has come for us to evolve beyond this sort of bigotry, exposing and addressing ignorant behaviour directly. If we can educate wrongdoers, then so much the better, but I would settle for simply ostracising those guilty of intolerance.

The Algarve is already truly beautiful, but how much more so if we could do away with this dichotomy once and for all...

Nothing in the world is more dangerous than sincere ignorance and conscientious stupidity. Martin Luther King, Jr.

More information

Stay on the right side of the line by reading Cormac's accompanying article '5 Ways to Avoid Being a Brit in the Algarve.'

All words and photos by Cormac Scanlan. For more photos visit his portfolio: Photography by Cormac Scanlan