Pass The Mic: Local Perspectives on the Rise of Tourism in the Azores

In the North Atlantic Ocean, about 1,500 kilometers west and less than a three hour flight from Lisbon, you’ll find the Azores archipelago. This autonomous Portuguese region consists of nine volcanic islands, each with its own colorful and uniquely jaw-dropping landscapes.

In 2015, air-space liberalization in the Azores began and low cost flights with carriers like EasyJet and RyanAir began operating to and from the archipelago.

Since then, the number of tourists travelling to the Azores has spiked significantly, particularly in São Miguel, the largest of the islands.

This has been great for the local economy and job creation, however, it also poses a serious threat to the very thing the island is known for - its pristine, natural beauty.

Though there are many positive impacts of tourism in the Azores, even local tourism companies agree that they don’t want to see the islands become a mass tour destination.

While visiting the Azores, I connected with three São Miguel natives - all currently studying or working in the tourism industry. I asked each of them for their personal perspectives on the increase of tourism in their home. Here’s what they had to say.

Read more: What to Do In São Miguel

Pass The Mic: A Local's Perspective on the Rise of Tourism in the Azores | HallAroundtheWorld

Joana Damião Melo

Joana was our AirBnb host in Ponta Delgada. Born in São Miguel, she lived on the island for 18 years before moving to Lisbon to study Hotel Management at Estoril Tourism University.

After her studies, she moved to Madrid where she began working in a hotel as an intern, a receptionist, a guest relations agent, and finally a sales executive at the company’s global sales office. Joana says this hotel was her real school.

Four years later, she moved back to Portugal where she worked on several major hotel renovations and property openings, including a position at the Ritz-Carlton in Sintra as the Director of Sales and Marketing. While here, Joana won the price for the Best Director of Sales and Marketing in Europe and the Middle East.

In 2015, she decided to return to São Miguel to relax and have her baby, and, after her son was born, she realized that there is no better place to raise a child.

Joana now has her hands quite full. She runs the beautiful Mirante Loft AirBnb and works for several villas on the island, including the Santa Bárbara Eco-Beach Resort where she works as a Sales Consultant.

She is also currently working on her own hotel project - Senhora da Rosa, Tradition & Nature Hotel which we should open at the end of this year or early next year.

What is your favorite thing about the Azores?

The Azores are one of the most beautiful destinations in the world for me! I've traveled several places and there is nothing like the Azores!

Every time I visit, even the most touristy sites, such as Lagoa das Sete Cidades, Furnas, or Lagoa do Fogo, I always feel passionate about my land!

I do not tire of this beauty, which is unique!!

I feel blessed to have been born here and to have returned to my land, and I want to contribute to its sustainable development as a tourist destination.

Could you tell me more about your property’s history and the upcoming hotel’s nature and tradition concept?

My parents built the property in 1994, but tourism was not like it is today. Flying over was extremely expensive and infrastructure in terms of hotels restaurants, and other activities was very poor. 

With great service and food, it was considered one of the best hotels in the Azores, but there was no focus on sales, promotion, or revenue management. Debts started to raise, bankruptcy was declared, and in 2011 the bank took over the property.

Many potential investors visited, but none of them bought it. All the while, I was looking for solutions to re-buy the property.

The whole property, including my house, the Airbnb unit where you stayed, my parents house, my uncle’s house, and all the gardens and plantations around us have been a part of my family for more than 200 years. It’s a place with a lot of history.

Read more about our stay at Joana’s AirBnb: Unique AirBnb in Ponta Delgada

In the 18th century, we started producing oranges. We built the tower where the Airbnb apartment is to see the ships entering the port of Ponta Delgada and to send the oranges there to be exported. 

After the plague, we had to switch to pineapple production.

My project is to renovate the existing building. It will have 33 rooms including two Suites, a restaurant, bar, two event rooms, and a rooftop bar. We will also create two new wooden houses in the middle of the banana trees. These small units will recreate the old "Cafuões" (small wooden houses where we used to store cereals) which were very common in the region.

We will keep all the gardens, reactivate the pineapple plantations, introduce a small hot tub inside one of them, and have a small spa using only natural products made from raw materials from the farm.

The concept of the new Senhora da Rosa is all about tradition and nature. We want to involve guests and invite them to explore the surrounding green area.

Pass The Mic: A Local's Perspective on the Rise of Tourism in the Azores | HallAroundtheWorld

What are your thoughts on rising tourism in the Azores? Is it positive, negative… or a bit of both? 

It is positive but we are in a critical moment when the entities involved must ensure that our greatest heritage - Nature - is maintained and protected.

The Azores is a destination that should limit visitors in a natural way - by positioning and selling the destination to the right markets.

Have you personally seen changes in the island since tourism began to increase? 

Yes, of course. We see tourist all year round, which is great. Between May and September in particular, we have many more people visiting than before.

On one side, this is great and very good for the economy. On the other side, we locals feel that it´s too crowed - (but it´s really not)! :)

What is being done to protect and preserve the land?

The local government has been doing a lot to protect and preserve and but there is always more to do.

After the tourism boom in 2015 and 2016, the local Government put in place several restrictions to the opening of new hotels and Airbnb as well.

They are in the process of certifying the Azores as one of the World’s Sustainable Tourism Destinations.

What do you think the overall local perspective is on tourism?

We need to grow on quality and not on quantity 

What should tourists know before visiting? 

That they can get 4 seasons in one day :)  

Pass The Mic: A Local's Perspective on the Rise of Tourism in the Azores | HallAroundtheWorld

Jorge Valério

My second interviewee is Jorge. Jorge has lived on the São Miguel island all his life, and has been working in tourism since age 14. He received a tourism degree from Azores University in Tourism Management and a Masters in Volcanology and Geological Risk.

Whether it’s as a skipper driving a boat or tour guide in a van, Jorge says his passion is connecting with people and helping their inner being feel in contact with nature.

This is why he and his partner Lisa started their company Holistika.

Launched in 2014, Holistika is a sustainably operated company that specializes in wellness tourism in the Azores. The company’s slogan “Meet Your Own Nature” alligns directly with their overall goal - to create real connections between their guests and nature.

Jorge knows his stuff about the Azores. He loves his home island and is committed to showing guests the REAL São Miguel.

I never got the chance to do one of Holistika’s activities, (though it’s at the top of my list for next time), but Jorge was still kind enough to give me his take on the Azores’ tourism boom.

What is your favorite thing about the Azores?

The water and the air! It's simply amazing, and super important to have a healthy life.

Though you show people the REAL Sao Miguel, do you still keep some secrets for yourself?

That's a fun question - but, yes! I have places that nobody will find!

What are your thoughts on the rise of tourism in the Azores?

Tourism is good for the economy and local evolution (in the mind and the way we see our world), however, rising tourism in the Azores can also be negative.

I think evolution is important, but we should be careful and not commit the same mistakes that other destinations have made before like building big hotels, having too many cars on the road, or simply losing our real identity!

Have you seen changes in the island since tourism began to increase?

Yes! Especially the number of cars around the island!

In a way, I think local tourism and low-cost flights are amazing, but it also brings a lot of pressure to our environment.

I believe that, soon, local people will lose the capacity to afford normal life the we always have. The houses and rent will be more expensive, and being in our nature without having people everywhere will be more difficult.

I feel that tourists are responsible with our nature, but I think the numbers are high enough.

If we keep having more people here, I don't feel it will be a good thing.

What is being done to protect and preserve the land?

Our government has created protected areas and laws that control construction and limit the number of licenses to do whale watching.

There are some projects that should not go on, like building big hotels and other structures.

I think that money moves money but we should not sell our nature with the objective only produce more money.

We don't have massive tourism now, and I hope we never do.

What should tourists know before visiting?

The Internet exposes a lot our places, which will lead to even more people travelling to the Azores. I advise people to come in the winter!

They should come with no expectations and just simply enjoy what this island offers… And please stop with the phones! - Relax, breathe and look through your eyes, not on Instagram.

Pass The Mic: A Local's Perspective on the Rise of Tourism in the Azores | HallAroundtheWorld

Miriam Vasconcelos

Last, (but most certainly not least), I spoke with Miriam.

Also a São Miguel native, she is currently living in London and finishing an International Tourism Degree with majors in travel and marketing. A traveller herself, Miriam says, “It is my passion to promote destinations and explore them as well.”

Once she has completed her studies, she hopes to pursue a career in travel and marketing. Her dream job is to be the Manager of a major Destination Management Organization, such as VisitBritain or VisitPortugal.

In the midst of her finals, Miriam was kind enough to take the time to answer a few of my questions about the increase of tourism in her home islands. (THANK YOU, MIRIAM)!

Her comprehensive and thoughtful responses illuminate a young professional’s perspective on both the positive and negative impacts of tourism (particularly in São Miguel), and what can be done to avoid the latter.

What is your favorite thing about the Azores?

My absolute favorite thing about the Azores is the colors and the smells… (even when it smells like cow poo). I love to see the green from the mountains meeting the blue from the sea.

I also love that nature is mostly untouched, or has been changed minimally by humans.

What are your thoughts on rising tourism in the Azores? positive, negative, or a bit of both?

The Azores have been in the spotlight for some time now, but I only recently started to notice new articles about it. I have seen it called the “Hawaii of Europe” or a “Better Iceland,” and who wouldn’t love to go to any of these places and pay £0.60 for a coffee?

Portugal is relatively cheap… but the islands are ridiculously cheap. You can find a good Airbnb for around £40p/night for a 2/3 bedroom place (and this is on São Miguel, the main island).

Due to the rise of tourism, especially in São Miguel, locals have started to be charged for things that belong to the land and that used to always be free, (for example, Poca da Dona beija, Furnas, Ferraria, and others). Other services and products have become more expensive (e.g. Whale watching, renting a car, boat trips, scuba diving, and hotels).

The rise in tourism has had positive impacts as well.

The Azores are rural islands. We live from selling milk from cows, growing fruit, and not much more. The tourism industry provides new, quicker opportunities to contribute to the archipelago’s GDP. We need it. The Azores are too small to just export - We need people coming and buying the milk from our cows, the mini pineapples that we grow, our fish, and so on. We need tourists.

Despite these positive economic impacts, it is vital to consider ways in which the islands can suffer from tourism.

It is known that our attitudes as tourists differ from our behaviours when at home in our day-to-day life. When we are on holiday we don’t care as much for things. We are relaxed. Extinguishing a cigarette on the floor is normal. Ice cream papers get dropped on the beach. This is a little thing, but when everyone does it, it is a big problem, and on a small island, it is ten times more visible than in a big city.

Another issue is transportation and pollution. More people equals more connectivity of flights, more air transport, buses running more frequently, and more pollution. The airport will probably have to be expanded and more airports created in other islands… All this to accommodate more tourists.

Pollution will impact the happiness of the locals, which will affect the satisfaction of the tourists. All tourists want to feel welcome in a destination. If the locals don’t want you there, would you come back? Would rate it? Would you suggest it? You would probably not even visit other places in the country.

What is being done (or should be done) to protect and preserve the islands?

Although, it is possible to manage this ascending issue, we must do so by studying and practicing sustainable tourism and bearing in mind every single party that is involved in the destination… including Nature.

I believe this should start with marketing.

Marketing to islands like the Azores should take into consideration more than the immediate outcome – Money. It is beneficial to have a lot now, but if the reason for the money is also the cause of the island’s destruction, then we are losing in the long run, right?

The Azores currently have several projects to balance the sustainability of Nature with tourism and the modern days. For instance, they have granted part of the green project, and they have an ecological school where you are taught how to grow vegetables, how to take care of the island, and so on.

Another strategy that the government has implemented is renewed energy houses, so, solar panels are used a lot nowadays

I hope you enjoy reading my little thoughts about my island. Please note that this is my opinion with a bit of background of marketing and tourism but it is not linked with any literature I studied. This is purely my thoughts about what I have been experiencing with my islands.

Pass The Mic: A Local's Perspective on the Rise of Tourism in the Azores | HallAroundtheWorld

Why is Sustainable Tourism Important?

Joana, Jorge, and Miriam each have unique perspectives regarding tourism in the Azores, but one common idea stands out - Tourism in the Azores must be developed sustainably.

Sustainable Tourism is important because SUSTAINABILITY is important.

In recent years, we have seen once pristine beaches become covered in plastic and several animal species now face the threat of extinction. These drastic consequences have (finally) made us more conscious and aware of the crisis facing our planet - what we have done to contribute to it and how we need to do better.

Now is the time to make policy changes which will protect and preserve our environment and the species in it, particularly within the tourism sector.

People in the Azores have recognized the potential negative impacts of rising tourism and are responding by making responsible and sustainable decisions in this developing sector.

The last thing locals want is for their home to turn into the next tourist hotspot like Iceland, or worse, like Thailand’s Maya Bay - (Made famous by the film The Beach, Maya Bay received over 5,000 visitors per day at the peak of its popularity. This inevitably resulted in the destruction of 80% of the reefs surrounding the bay, and its indefinite closure last October).

The government has made steps in the right direction by creating protected areas and placing a cap on the number of hotels that can be constructed across the nine islands.

Local business owners such as Joana and Jorge are also playing their part by creating innovative, sustainable alternatives to traditional hotels and tour companies. Still, like Joana said above, there is always more that can be done.

São Miguel is easily one of the most naturally beautiful places I have ever been, and it is a place that all nature lovers and outdoor enthusiasts should have the opportunity to experience and enjoy. That being said, tourists visiting the island should be conscious and respectful (of the land and the locals), and do their part to practice and support sustainable tourism, too.

Pass The Mic: A Local's Perspective on the Rise of Tourism in the Azores | HallAroundtheWorld

What are your thoughts on over-tourism?

Let me know in the comments below!