Sara Pedro is sat at a beach-side restaurant with friends. It is her first time dining out in three months.
She is in Madeira, an autonomous region of Portugal, having left her home city of Lisbon’s strict coronavirus restrictions to take advantage of the more relaxed atmosphere on the Atlantic island and its “green corridor” for visitors who can show either a vaccination certificate or proof they have recently recovered from the virus.
“I came to Madeira because in continental Portugal we are under absolute lockdown, so there was a certain fatigue about it,” she says.
Sara, who has recovered from Covid-19, entered Madeira without having to take a PCR test, as would typically be required. Instead, she presented a medical certificate proving she has been in contact with the virus.
The island has a 7pm curfew, but in its capital of Funchal the esplanades are full of people having coffee in the sun as customers go in and out of the shops. It’s in stark contrast with the empty streets and closed shopfronts across mainland Portugal, which is still under tough restrictions imposed on 15 January to tackle what was then the world’s worst coronavirus surge.
“Obviously, border closures are necessary for extreme situations, but I think it’s time to bet on safe tourism. Why can’t this be done in other European countries?” Sara asks, as a waiter arrives with drinks.
Located off the coast of Morocco and more than 800km from mainland Portugal, Madeira is one of the few places in Europe accepting tourists – and since 18 February it has been operating a green corridor for tourists who have recovered from Covid-19 in the previous 90 days or who have been fully vaccinated against it, in a foretaste of what may be a future of vaccine passports for EU travel.
Vaccinated travellers must present an immunisation certificate in English, validated in their home country, that includes their name, date of birth, type of vaccine, and the date (or dates) it was administered. Tourists must also respect the activation period set out in the vaccine’s summary of product characteristics.
Eduardo Jesus, the regional secretary for tourism, said: “We felt the need to take this decision because we are looking at the reality, which is that the markets are sizzling in terms of the wish to travel.” He added: “Everyone has the right to travel, so our biggest goal is to make people’s lives easier.”
The regional government does not yet have the number of vaccinated tourists who have entered the island under the green-corridor rules. But authorities have high expectations for the “vaccine passport”, hoping it will be a prime selling point to attract British tourists, who make up 27% of visitors, when the UK allows travel again.
“There is a great interest from the UK’s population to visit Madeira … and if the 17 May opening happens, we will have a summer that will allow us to recover from all this,” Jesus said.
Paulo Prada, the director of the Pestana Hotel Group, said many of his UK clients had told him they are just waiting for their second shot of the vaccine and the lifting of restrictions to be able to return to Madeira.
He said: “We depend a lot on the British market. We know it will be the first to resume travelling. We are waiting for the UK to follow its end-of-lockdown plan so British people can start arriving gradually.”
“I think this measure is an absolute advantage for British tourists that want to come to Madeira because most of them will already be vaccinated by May and can arrive with tranquility,” he added.
Of the 13 hotels owned by the Pestana group in Madeira, only one of them is open – at 10% capacity – yet Prada still maintains that the situation is better than it is in mainland Portugal where the group’s Porto and Lisbon hotels are closed. At the half-empty breakfast deck overlooking the ocean, most guests are Portuguese, but Prada said the clients were younger than usual and some were from countries such as Poland and the Czech Republic, “which is also an opportunity”.
Margarita and Kristoff, from Poland, were first-time visitors to Madeira. “We chose Madeira because it was the only destination that was available,” Kristoff explained as he took photographs of his wife against the lush green and blue background of Madeira’s coastline.
“It’s a beautiful island, and we have enough of everything. There is no problem at all [with the restrictions],” he said.
Eduardo Jesus said he hoped that “whatever the EU decides” over travel and vaccinations, this summer would not be too different from what Madeira is already doing.
He said: “We expect that until July … August, there will be a comfortable percentage of people vaccinated around Europe, which is a market that feeds us, touristically speaking.
“We have to create the conditions that allow everyone to travel. And we have the duty to find the way to welcome them in the most comfortable way.”