When the Obama family received a Portuguese water dog from the late senator Ted Kennedy in 2009, the tourism minister of the region it was from couldn’t have been happier. “We had been trying to get the Obamas to accept the dog – originally bred to help Portuguese fishermen – as our gift,” says Nuno Aires, the chief of tourism for the Algarve.
“It is a particularly rare breed and a source of pride for our country. People here were ecstatic.” After cuddly Bo Obama was introduced to the global media, enquiries to breeding farms in the region – Portugal’s most popular tourist destination – inevitably increased. Two years later, the municipality is hoping for another financial boost caused by public name-checking. According to Aires, officials have been in “serious discussion” with the British royal family over the prospects of Prince William and Kate Middleton enjoying their April honeymoon in the Algarve. The invitation was sent via the ambassador Alex Ellis in December.
The news was met with hope in the Portuguese press, but with scepticism and accusations of wishful thinking by others. Aires proclaimed that the Algarve option made big news in Britain – a statement that bended the truth at best – and that the couple’s acceptance was almost certain, given the “historic ties” between Portugal and the UK. This conviction has been met with silence back in Britain. ] Certain hotels are already jumping the gun, offering special “romance packages” in anticipation. But you can’t blame them for hoping. If the young royals do turn up, the benefits would extend to everyone, from the man serving up grilled sardines on the beach, to the local paparazzi, who would normally have to wait until August for minor Portuguese celebrities to get into their swimsuits.
The year 2009 turned out to be the worst for Algarve tourism for 15 years, and it is expected that 2010 figures will decline further. As the scaffolding surrounding new property is left suspended in mid-air, the middle classes are considering selling up their summer homes. Brits, no longer interested in the package holidays so popular in the 1990s, have found other destinations.
In terms of “soft power” diplomacy, the Algarve’s persistence with the Windsors is positively spongy. It also doesn’t have a great history with British royals: Sarah Ferguson, the Duchess of York, came with her children and stayed in a private house some years ago, but cut short her stay complaining of press intrusion.
“Let’s not knock the Algarve tourist board and others in the struggling tourism sector for trying,” says Len Port, a journalist and blogger based in the south of Portugal. “But they will have to come up with a better initiative than asking William and Kate to drop by.”