Responsible tourism in Portugal

Portugal, like many countries, has been experiencing hard times. Unemployment and taxes have gone up, wages down. But the temperament of its people means Portugal has reacted largely with sad resignation rather than the anger and violence seen in places like Greece. New tourism initiatives are increasingly seen as one way to improve Portugal's well-being, emphasising how much more there is than fly-and-flop Algarve resorts which for too long have embodied many people's idea of a 'Portugal vacation' - along with city breakers hitting Lisbon and, to a lesser extent, Porto.

The country's dazzling history is boosting cultural tourism, spurred by the European City of Culture mantle given to Lisbon in 1994 and Porto in 2001. Sintra glories in its UNESCO World Heritage status, while beguiling cities like Evora and Coimbra are attracting new visitors. And rural Portugal is finally being recognised as a tourist beacon for responsible tourism in Portugal. Regions like Alentejo and Douro highlight gastronomy, craft and history, while celebrating timeless agricultural traditions. Wildlife is also being put in the spotlight for responsible tourism in Portugal, from birds in the south to wolves in the north.

The Portuguese are perhaps the kindest and most welcoming people in Europe, and are keener than ever to share life in one of the continent's loveliest countries. Hard times just mean they will be especially pleased to see you.

People & culture

Rural subsistence

Portugal wasn't a rich country even before the effects of the ongoing global economic crisis – and nowhere was this felt more keenly than in countryside. Subsistence agricultural is hard enough at the best of times, and over the past three decades, Portugal's vast rural interior suffered significant depopulation as people – especially the young – moved to cities in search of work and a sense of purpose they weren't sensing in what they saw as moribund country life.
Rural tourism is proving a vital tool for responsible tourism in Portugal, helping halt a migration which had threatened the future of many communities across swathes of southern and central Portugal. Farms stays, country inns and restaurants are vitally boosting income hosting and feeding visitors who, thanks to the wonderful climate, are increasingly visiting year round. A demand for crafts and local produce helps maintain production as well as pride in the preservation of ancient skills. The surge in wildlife travel also underpins responsible tourism in Portugal by spurring environmental protection and driving initiatives such as 2013 opening of the Rota Vicentina in the Alentejo. The wonders are there – you just need to come and marvel - then tell your friends.
What you can do:
Try to experience as much of traditional Portugal as you can, show you are interested in both its past and present – and buy some local produce, from food to handicrafts. Creating employment in rural areas and maintaining endangered traditions is a key element of responsible tourism in Portugal!

Bull fighting & bull running

Though not as widespread as Spain, bullfighting takes place in Portugal – albeit in a less overtly bloody way than its Iberian neighbour. For many years, Portuguese bulls were not allowed to be killed during the contest – though since they were inevitably slaughtered afterwards because of their injuries that seemed a moot point. Recently, however, legal challenges from those claiming the killing of bulls is a long historic tradition have led to bulls being 'legally' killed in the arena during 2014, for the first time in 15 years. The magnificent trained horses and period costumes worn by the mounted cavaleiros (or cavaleiras if a woman) and forcados (men who face the bull on the ground) may make for a spectacle – but for many it remains something that can be considered barbaric to anyone concerned with responsible tourism in Portugal.
Bull-running also takes places in parts of Portugal. Be aware two participants were killed in Setubal in September 2014. Clarisse Santos, one of that event's organisers, defended the situation: “The bull runs will continue. For many years we have provided all the security and safety measures possible for the event and warn that it is dangerous but we cannot control the thousands of people.”

What you can do:
At Responsible Travel, we don’t support watching the killing or injuring animals for sport as part of responsible tourism in Portugal – and anyone taking part in the bull runs is also putting themselves at risk of injury or death. It may well be part of local cultural history, as in Spain - but if you want to get a sense of what's involved, we suggest reading Ernest Hemingway’s classic 1920s account of Iberian bull traditions in The Sun Also Rises.

Wildlife & environment

Dolphin Shows

Portugal has 'sealife centers' with captive dolphins and other ocean-living animals, notably the Algarve's Zoomarine. Whatever the publicity says about the amount of space, dolphins are highly-intelligent mammals that range far and wide in the ocean, engaging with other dolphins and sea life. They require this for their emotional and social well-being more than they need to get up close to a human being – however happy - in a shallow artificial 'lagoon'.  

What you can do:
At Responsible Travel, we do not support keeping dolphins in captivity as part of responsible tourism in Portugal. For more information on our stance, plus where to see these marine mammals in the wild, see our Dolphin watching guide.

Ripped up quads

Some areas - but especially the Algarve - offer quad bike and jeep tours. But despite 'terms and conditions' talking about causing no harm to the environment, these cause pollution, disturb wildlife and damage vegetation. They are also noisy and smelly for other visitors who are keener on trying to quietly enjoy the beautiful countryside on foot or cycling. People go to the wilderness for tranquillity – noisy vehicles are the antithesis of responsible tourism in Portugal.

What you can do:
Get around using pedal or foot power not horse power.

Responsible tourism tips

Tap water is safe to drink in virtually all of Portugal– if in doubt, ask your hosts. Bring refillable bottles and reduce your waste. Be respectful of local resources, particularly water. Keep well-hydrated, of course – but don't waste water. Wildfires are a risk throughout the long, hot summer months. Be extremely careful when driving, do not discard cigarette butts and never leave glass bottles lying around, as they can spark a fire in dry vegetation. In some regions, starting a forest fire – even if it is an accident – is treated as a criminal offence. In summer, barbecues are banned in most places in Portugal. Eat local! Outside of the concentrated resort areas, this is surprisingly easy to do. Weekly markets are a great place for self-catering travelers to stock up on fresh fruit and vegetables, and coastal areas will benefit from daily fish. Inland, river towns will also have freshwater fish. If you’re not planning on cooking, you can still prepare your own picnics with fresh local bread, home-made cheeses, fresh fruit, olives, etc. Many rural areas of Portugal are filled with – sometimes struggling - small-scale producers, growing largely organic rice, olives, fruit, nuts (especially almonds) and oranges, among other things. These can make lovely gifts, including wine, olive oil and nut products - all counted in food metres rather than miles. Beachwear should be restricted to the beach! It is culturally inappropriate and disrespectful even in coastal towns for men to be topless or for women to wear bikinis away from the beach. Learn a few words of Portuguese, even if just basic greetings and “thank you!” Familiarise yourself with the rules for each park or protected area. You may be expected to stick to the main trails, wild camping may not be allowed at all or only following certain guidelines, and bathing in rivers or lakes is not always permitted. These rules are there to preserve the biodiversity and the natural beauty – please obey them!
Written by Norman Miller
Photo credits: [Page banner: Ian_woodhead1] [Rural subsistence: Peter] [Bull fighting & bull running: gcardinal] [Dolphin Shows: William Warby]