After a winter of strict lockdown and a spring in which the weather gradually reopened but was poor, the first British tourists to Portugal since the country was put on the ‘green list’ for quarantine-free travel were thrilled to flee even if their travels weren’t quite as carefree as in previous summers.
“We just wanted to go everywhere that wasn’t really London,” said singer and songwriter Celeste Waite (27) as she climbed a hilly street in Lisbon’s Alfama district with Sonny Hall (22), a model and poet, last Saturday .
“It was nice to finally get back to normal,” said Karen Kaur, 35, of Kent, England, after she and Jay Singh, 38, drank ginjinha, a cherry liqueur, from a street vendor in Praça da Figueira, a large square downtown.
But British travelers, expecting some kind of pre-pandemic travel experience, found something different in Lisbon on the first weekend it reopened for them. Although the Portuguese capital still offered its signature food, museums, scenic views, and attractions, strict mask rules and curfews reminded visitors that this would not be a full escape.
The opening weekend for Brits previewed what a broader return to international travel might look like for others, including vaccinated Americans, when they are welcomed to Europe this summer: a mix of joy, relief, and sometimes uncomfortable interactions when the cultures after A year of different pandemic experiences grow together.
Portugal has long been one of the UK’s most popular travel destinations. In Lisbon and Porto there are picturesque excursion destinations in the city. In the coastal town of Cascais and the Algarve, known for their seductive beaches, there are beachfront restaurants and hotels that are suitable for their tourists. Hours of flight. According to Turismo de Portugal, the national tourism association, more than 2.1 million people from the UK visited in 2019, most from all countries except Spain.
Today Portugal is one of the UK’s only travel destinations. In early May, the UK put Portugal on the “green list” of 12 countries and areas that residents can travel to from May 17 without quarantining for up to 10 days after their return. Most of the other places on the green list either don’t accept tourists or are not primary destinations.
Prices for flights to Portugal rose after the announcement. But flying now means accepting expensive and sometimes confusing extra steps and emphasizing the tentative nature of reopening international travel.
Tourists are required to fill out multiple forms and submit a negative PCR test performed less than 72 hours prior to the flight. Before returning to the UK, they must take another test within 72 hours of their flight and show that they have booked a third test to be taken on their second day in the UK. The tests add up to hundreds of dollars per person, for many people, in excess of the cost of airfare.
Some tourists who were on a British Airways flight from London last Saturday said the extra steps were painful but they would have to get out of the UK after a difficult winter. From December to late March, the country experienced one of the strictest and longest statewide lockdowns in the world, with socializing only allowed through walks in the cold with another person. Pubs and restaurants did not open for al fresco dining until mid-April, and overnight travel within the country was only permitted last week.
“Nobody else goes, so I rubbed it with my friends,” said Anna De Pascalis, 23, before boarding a flight to Lisbon with her mother Julie De Pascalis. “Everyone is pretty jealous.”
After a winter of increasing coronavirus cases, there have been a few hundred cases and single-digit deaths per day in Portugal since the end of March. There are differences when it comes to vaccinations against Covid-19, however: around 36 percent of Portuguese have received at least one dose of vaccine, compared to around 57 percent of those from the UK.
Silvia Olivença, the owner of the Food Tour Company Oh! My cod in Lisbon said she wasn’t worried about being indoors with unmasked tourists during dinner, although she heard from other Portuguese concerns that the return of foreigners could threaten Portugal’s low case numbers, although tourists test negative before they do can fly.
“You have people who think about it, of course,” she said. But she added, “I think people in general are very happy that tourism is coming back.”
A month ago she might do one tour a week. Now it’s up to 10 a week, with roughly 70 percent of her bookings coming from the UK, she said. In addition to British tourists, Portugal has also returned visitors from the European Union.
For Sara Guerreiro, who owns a ceramics shop at the Feira da Ladra flea market in the winding Alfama district, last Saturday was more of a normality. When she looked in front of her shop, she saw maybe 10 percent of the pedestrian traffic before the pandemic via the twice-weekly market, which sells various items to locals in addition to works of art and jewelry.
But she said Lisbon could find a better balance in the number of tourists it welcomes because “as it was before was also too many.”
Overall, compared to the pre-virus hordes, so far only a trickle of tourists has returned to Portugal. Those who took the trip were able to enjoy the city like few have: without swarms of other tourists to jostle with.
Only a few dozen lingered at the ornate Praça do Comércio, a historic square that is usually full of visitors. You can easily take a wide-angle photo in front of the Belém Tower, a popular landmark, on Sunday lunchtime without anyone else inside. The custard cake queue at nearby Pastéis de Belém, usually an outdoor affair, passed in minutes on Sunday morning. At Tasco do Chico, known for its live fado music, a bar was available a minute before the first performance began on Saturday night.
In a lively scene reminiscent of pre-pandemic freedom, tourists and locals came together in Bairro Alto on Saturday night, with bars and restaurants full of night owls until curfew at 10:30 p.m. Nicci Howson, 65, said she was surrounded by Portuguese dancing in Cervejaria do Bairro, a restaurant in that neighborhood, for the first time in a year that she had danced in front of her house.
“You could see the elation on people’s faces to just let go,” she said.
At 10:30 p.m., when some Portuguese might only be sitting for dinner in normal times, the bars closed and sent a crowd of people to dance and sing together in the narrow streets until they were scared away on motorbikes by the police for about five minutes later. The revelers stayed in nearby Luís de Camoes Square until 11:30 p.m. when officers dispersed the group.
But during the day there weren’t such crowds to deal with.
Mark Boulle, 38, from Oxford, England, said he usually tries to avoid the crowds when traveling, so the trip was a dream in that regard. On Monday, when he went on a day trip to Sintra, a nearby town of postcard-ready palaces and castles, “I had practically all of the space to myself for the first half of the day,” he said.
However, he was dismayed by the widespread use of masks outdoors in Lisbon – a sharp move away from behavior in the UK, where the government has never suggested wearing masks outside and most people don’t. It was a source of tension for both the visitors and the Portuguese.
The use of masks outdoors is compulsory in Portugal. In some places, including beaches, violations are punishable by fines. In the Castelo de São Jorge, an 11th-century castle with sweeping views of the city, a security guard roamed the grounds and instructed the few tourists to put on masks while standing far away from others. A bookseller at an open-air market in Baixa grumbled that tourists should adhere to local attitudes and customs regarding masks rather than bringing their own ideas abroad.
But Mr. Boulle said he wanted the sun on his face. When he was buying his ticket at Jerónimos Monastery, a popular tourist attraction, a security guard stopped him before he could buy his ticket and asked him to put on a mask.
Mr Boulle replied that he had asthma and that he could not carry one because he had difficulty breathing. “That’s not true, but I just wanted to see,” he said. “You can always say that in England.” No luck, as the security guard pointed out.
Frederico Almeida, the general manager of the Albatroz Hotel in the nearby beach town of Cascais, said he and his staff needed to remind visitors from the UK of the requirements.
Despite these problems, he is happy to see British tourists again. They are the top market for the region, he said, and their return has been quick. The 42-room hotel was about 20 percent full two weeks ago. now it is up to 80 percent.
“In the last two weeks it’s suddenly like we’ve gone back to normal,” he said. “It is wonderful.”
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