Many visitors come to the Algarve for the outstanding quality of its natural environment and its scenic beauty. With pristine beaches and spectacular rocky coves, our shores are among the top destinations for Europe’s lovers of sun and sea. The Algarve is also a must-visit area for bird watching. The famous spring and autumn migrations bring people as well as the birds flocking to Sagres, for example.
That’s not all by any means. With fascinating geology, Roman archaeological remains and magnificent spring wildflowers, it’s hardly surprising that the Algarve is attracting increasing numbers of other so-called Nature Tourists. The economic benefits are not confined to coastal communities: wonderful wildflowers flourish further inland too, wherever traditional farming methods ensure that native plants are not smothered by monoculture crops that now dominate so much of Europe.
Wildlife enthusiasts who come to enjoy the Algarve’s natural world bring business to the region at times when ‘mainstream’ tourists are in short supply. Those who work in service industries know only too well that off-peak tourism helps to sustain hotels, restaurants and shops through the winter months.
At last, it seems, local government is responding to this opportunity. New wildlife maps and guides are now available from tourist offices in the Algarve, and across the region we see infrastructure investment too. So far so good, but a worrying aspect of their response seems to be the almost obsessive building of boardwalks and car parks that do nothing to enhance the environment and can even destroy the intrinsic value of features that people come here to see.
We do need facilities that enable access for our less mobile visitors. In some locations the boardwalks also protect fragile environments that might otherwise be destroyed by people and dogs trailing through them. But you can have too much of a good thing. Vast tracts of the coast are now crisscrossed by costly wooden structures whose regular maintenance may well prove unaffordable. A boardwalk smashed by Atlantic storms is a safety hazard which, if not quickly repaired, becomes an eyesore.
Excessive or badly sited boardwalks only mar the landscapes they purport to promote. Having visited one or two coastal sites with views dominated by boardwalks, will tourists want to extend their stay to see yet more of the same? Surely it is the uniqueness of sites, the diversity of wildlife and the variety of landscapes that make the region so attractive. There’s a danger that in making everywhere like everywhere else we will lose what makes the Algarve so special. As the Joni Mitchell song says:
‘Don’t it always seem to go
That you don’t know what you’ve got ‘til it’s gone
They paved paradise
And put up a parking lot’
On that subject, I heard recently about a scheme to build a car park on one of the Algarve’s most important geological sites, near Sagres, which is also the location of Natura 2000 protected habitats. Meanwhile the fight goes on to avert the controversial construction of another hotel and golf course resort at Salgados, again a famous bird site. Now we hear of an application to ‘develop’ one of the few remaining unspoilt parts of the Algarve coast: the wonderful wildflower meadows around Benagil, home to at least 11 species of wild orchids, would be destroyed if the go-ahead is given for… you guessed it, another golf course! In similar vein, two sites between Praia Marinha and Senhora da Rocha would be bulldozed to build more golf resorts. Whilst not holding international conservation designations, these beautiful places are at the very heart of what nature tourists come to enjoy – and currently they are boardwalk-free!
Are these proposed developments driven by any real understanding of what nature tourists really value or what is needed to sustain the wild plants and animals? Approval seems to be based on the promise of job creation; but, as has so often been demonstrated in the Algarve, such employment is usually short term. The jobs last as long as the building work does, and then they wither and die – as do too many of the resorts, abandoned due to insufficient visitors. When this happens there are no winners, and another precious part of the Algarve’s natural heritage is lost forever.
In a region with limited experience of wildlife tourism development, have civil servants who make these decisions fallen under the spell of ‘best practice’ – often interpreted as let’s find out what other people do and then do the same thing… everywhere? Boardwalks and car parks do little to promote tourism and nothing to nurture the plants, animals and landscape that visitors come to see. Creating ever more facilities for visitors could destroy the very things they come to see, and risks turning the Algarve’s natural heritage into something resembling a theme park.
There are cost effective things that tourism policy makers could focus on to improve the Algarve for all who depend upon it – the woeful plague of litter, for instance. Take action against fly-tipping. The discarded furniture, building rubble and broken domestic appliances that mar so many of our finest wildlife sites are not brought here by tourists; they are dumped by people who live in the region. We must persuade hunters to collect and take home their cartridges. What good is an expensive boardwalk that crosses a magnificent habitat peppered with discarded cookers, carpets and clothes? Wildlife tourists do not go on holiday to see heaps of litter. One international tour operator had so many customer complaints about litter in rural Ireland that the only solution was to remove that destination from their brochure. Such a reputation seriously damages a rural economy.
There is no doubt that a healthy natural environment teeming with diverse wildlife underpins the health, wealth and welfare of each and every one of us.
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