Spend some time in the Arrivals hall at the airport here in Faro and you will quickly realise the importance of golf to the Algarve tourist industry. It's hard to sneak into the country with a bag of golf clubs without the main purpose of your visit being recognised!
However, it is not so easy to see how many arriving visitors have a pair of binoculars or a telescope in their carry-on bags. We might think that our optical equipment weighs heavy but compared to those golfers we travel light! Anyway, the result is that the number of birdwatchers visiting the Algarve and the value of birding tourism here has largely gone unrecognised.
Recently, however, there have been signs that the Algarve Tourist Board has at last begun to realise the potential of this area as a destination for birders, something that we, of course, have been aware of for quite a few years! We understand that there will even be a Turismo do Algarve presence at this year's Birdfair at Rutland Water (on the SPEA stand in Marquee 1), recognition of that event's importance in promoting birding tourism all over the world.
We would like to think that this new awareness of birdwatching and its potential benefit to the local economy might eventually lead to better protection of wildlife habitats here. Could it be that one day the importance to birds of sites such as Lagoa dos Salgados and Vilamoura might lead to harmful development proposals actually being refused? Faced with deciding between another new golf course, another hotel or a wildlife reserve, could it be that the authorities might choose to keep that lagoon or that reedbed? We’re thinking long-term here, of course, but if wildlife areas can be seen to bring economic benefits, who knows? This is, after all, what ecotourism is about.
Yesterday we were at a birdwatching fair here in Portugal, a rare event indeed! If it bore any resemblance to the Birdfair it was perhaps to the original Rutland Water event more than 20 years ago. In other words it was on a pretty small scale. It was called Observanatura, a name that was presumably chosen to imply an interest in a broader spectrum of wildlife than just birds but the publicity material described it as a 'birdwatching fair' and that's what it was. It was held at the Herdade da Mourisca, an ICNB reserve area on the Sado estuary, near Setúbal, a three-hour drive from our home in Tavira. We were there with our Portuguese partner-company, Another Level. Representatives of most of the country’s birding tour operators were there and for us it was a nice social occasion, an opportunity to renew acquaintances with some of the small Portuguese birding community.
The differences between Observanatura and the Rutland Water event were highlighted in Saturday morning’s opening talk by another friend, Tim Appleton, self-described ‘grandfather of all birdwatching fairs’. Tim’s talk was entitled Birdfair – its value to the Birding Industry and International Conservation. The figures that he quoted relating to exhibitor and visitor numbers at Birdfair, the amounts of money spent there and the considerable sums raised for conservation must have been quite mind-boggling for the Portuguese! However, you have to start somewhere and Observanatura is a welcome development, an event we hope to see repeated. If and when it is, we hope the organisers will take heed of Tim’s advice and choose a venue that is more accessible and nearer to a centre of population. If it has to be an ICNB ‘reserve’ then we can think of nowhere better than Quinta do Marim in the Ria Formosa, where visitor numbers would surely be higher than they were yesterday.
We will, of course, be on the Avian Adventures stand at Rutland Water on Friday 20th - Sunday 22nd August. We hope the weather there is as good as it was yesterday at scorching hot Herdade da Mourisca.