Notwithstanding a dip in visitor numbers this year, the Atlantic archipelago of the Azores is holding its own according to the region’s newly-appointed tourism chief, Miguel Cymbron, a man with a mission who remains remarkably upbeat despite the negative effects of one of the worst economic downturns in modern times.
Hoteliers across the nine-island region have, he says, maintained average room rates at a time when more glamorous destinations around the world have been drastically dumping prices in a desperate attempt to sustain some level of profitability and salvage market share.
One reason for the Azores’ resilience to the slump is an ongoing stealth campaign targeting strategic markets with specific products.
“We’re trying to make people more aware of the many things they can do in the Azores. Our philosophy is to increase business from existing markets rather than penetrate new ones, which is why we’re focusing mainly on the key markets of the United Kingdom, Germany, Holland, France, Scandinavia, Portugal, the U.S.A. and Canada,” explains Cymbron.
The latter is of particular interest due to the increase in weekly flights (from one to two) by local carrier SATA between the islands’ hub of Ponta Delgada and Toronto as from 2 December, in addition to a rise in weekly frequencies to Montreal planned between May and October next year.
SATA’s sights are also firmly set on the Scandinavian market, with a new route to Copenhagen inaugurated in October, to be followed by Stockholm in February and Oslo in April.
More activities and increased visibility
With better transport links in place, Cymbron and his team are now focused on generating more awareness of what, in effect, is one of the most stunningly beautiful yet remotest parts of the world, a mid-ocean palette of multi-floral splendour spread across 645km between Portugal and the USA.
“The mechanism is already in full swing with all the right distribution channels in place. All we need to do now is to make more people aware of what we have here,” he explains.
Every island is a standalone destination with an astonishing range of geographical and cultural features, each having risen above the sea’s surface from the earth’s core at different times, in different ways and for very different reasons.
“They all have their own unique characteristics. São Miguel is the largest and best-known of the islands, while Pico is strikingly appealing and very centrally located. Flores is the most westerly with a beautiful array of lakes and flowers and São Jorge is even more unusual for the fact that it wasn’t created by any volcanic activity.”
On the subject of local attractions and tourist activities, Cymbron is quick to point out that they are much more accessible and wide-ranging than in the past. The local waters are arguably Europe’s number one spot for whale-watching, an increasingly popular pastime that has replaced the destructive pursuit of hunting them down and killing them in former times.
The region’s scuba diving centers are modern and well organized with prices very reasonable compared with many other destinations, and some even offer the chance to dive at night.
Golfers can currently choose from three first-rate courses affording some of the finest views imaginable from the greens and fairviews, with another two in the pipeline. And with the islands so alive with geothermal activity, vulcanology is starting to capture the imagination of visitors, the most recent eruption having taken place just forty years ago on the spot where a new visitors’ center now exists.
Geocaching (a high-tech treasure hunting game played throughout the world by adventure seekers equipped with GPS devices) is fast becoming a popular eco-friendly tourist activity in the Azores and is soon to be extended across all nine islands, with the idea being to locate hidden containers called geocaches and share the experience online.
“There’s a much broader choice of things for visitors to do nowadays. The challenge is to keep people thoroughly entertained while they are here,” he stresses.
New hotels and better facilities
Besides having more things to do, visitors also have a wider selection of accommodation available, including the region’s first-ever five-star hotel, the Príncipe do Mónaco (with casino attached), which is soon to open in a prime location overlooking the marina in Ponta Delgada.
Meanwhile, several newly-built four-star hotels have recently opened on the islands of Graciosa (the Graciosa Resort & Business Hotel), São Miguel (the Furnas Spa Hotel), Pico (the Baía da Barca Aparthotel) and Flores (the Hotel das Flores), with more at various stages of development.
But it’s not just hotels visitors are looking for these days. The islands are responding to the fact that people are increasingly seeking the more homely and traditional kind of hospitality being served up at places like Aldeia da Cuada, a typically Azorean hamlet comprising 9 lovingly-restored houses once abandoned and recently brought back to their former glory in a prime location on Europe’s most westerly coast.
“At Aldeia da Cuada, visitors can experience how Azorean people used to lived many, many years ago. It’s incredible!” he enthuses.
Indeed, there’s a certain enchantment about the Azores that remains quite unmatched by most other destinations. Perhaps it’s their remote mid-Atlantic location, or the kaleidoscopic carpet of floral landscapes emblazoning the islands. Or maybe it’s more to do with the mysterious origin of the archipelago, which many historians believe to be part of the lost continent of Atlantis.
Either way, visitors always feel the magic of being in a very special place; somewhere completely untainted by the demands of mass tourism and the eyesores of over-development.
“They’re certainly islands of a very magical nature. There’s blue and green everywhere with such a profusion of flowers and a great variety of scenery changing its complexion on a daily, sometimes hourly, basis.”
And the magic is starting to have a more profound effect as the archipelago finds itself increasingly in vogue as an eco-friendly tourism destination, having received widespread recognition in the past couple of years. Flores, the most westerly of the nine islands, was recently declared a UNESCO biosphere reserve, one of 533 in 107 countries, while the same island came second in National Geographic Traveler magazine’s study of the world’s most sustainable tourism destinations. And Pico, for its part, glowed with pride when Florida-based Islands magazine described it in a recently article as ‘one of the best places in the world to live’.
“Our marketing efforts are now streamlined towards the recent awards attributed to the Azores for environmental reason,” Cymbron concludes.