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Tourism in the Algarve: History and Sustainable Development


The Algarve is the southernmost province of Portugal and has gained a reputation in recent years as a popular tourist destination. Visitors now flock to the region each year in order to sample the agreeable climate, landscape and culture. A plethora of modern amusement parks, leisure facilities and golf courses await the prospective tourist and offer an impressive array of activities to chose from.

The tourist industry has been growing steadily in the Algarve since the 1960s, and over 4,5 million arrivals were recorded at Faro international airport in 2003. Indeed, when one considers that in 1960 only 353,000 foreign tourists visited the province, one could easily refer to the recent developments as a veritable ‘tourist boom.’[1] Such a surge in activity has naturally provided a great deal of economic benefit at a local and national level. As Boniface and Cooper have noted, tourism is now a fundamental component of the Portuguese economy and accounts for 8 per cent of GDP.[2] However, the rapid expansion of tourist development on the coastal areas of the Algarve has raised serious concerns regarding the environmental impact of the industry. Many commentators are now questioning the sustainability of tourism and other commercial projects throughout the province. Indeed, as well as environmental considerations, the prospect of an increasingly competitive international tourist market also exacerbates anxiety. Thus, will it be possible to maintain the thriving tourist sector and sustain commercial development in the Algarve?

The Geography of the Algarve

The climate of the Algarve is highly conducive to the tourist and leisure industries. Temperatures range from a comfortable 15°C in January to a peak of 28°C in July. Average rainfall is only 1mm in July, whilst during the winter period it rises to 70mm.[3] Tourist numbers peak during the summer months of June to August but the mildness of the winter months has permitted entrepreneurs with the opportunity to promote all year round tourism.

The province spans 160 km from the Atlantic Ocean in the west to the Spanish border in the east, and extends for 30 to 40 km inland from the southern coast.[4] Over 300 km of coastline boasts some of the finest beaches in Europe. Wuerpel has divided the province into three distinct areas, these are the mountainous, hilly and lower heterogeneous zones.[5] The mountainous region is sparsely populated and the stony soils in many areas are restrictive to agricultural practices. However, the higher rainfall and more agreeable bed rock of Serra de Monchique in the west provide excellent mountain pastures. The highest peak in the Algarve (Foia) is located in this range and at 902 metres has become something of a tourist attraction.

The hilly central region which forms a ‘crescent’ shape between the mountains and the coastline is named the ‘Barrocal’ by the local peoples. The fine terra-rosa soils of this zone support the orange, almond and fig orchards of the province, as well as the vineyards and olive crops. This area represents the true ‘garden of the Algarve’ and the small villages, which have maintained much of their traditional character, are to be found here.[6] Tourist operators have begun to promote the cultural heritage of these settlements and encourage visits further inland.

The coastal vicinity forms Weurpel’s lower Heterogeneous zone, and it is this area which has experienced the most pressure from recent developments in the tourist and leisure industries. The geography of the coastline can be readily divided into two separate sections east and west of the town of Faro, which is the largest settlement in the province and serves as the administrative centre. Picturesque bays, grottoes, coves and outcrops are evident to the west, whilst to the east the coast is flatter with sandy offshore islets (ilhas) and mud flats. Ellingham, Fisher and Kenyon have highlighted that most tourist development seems to have taken place between Faro and the town of Albufeira. They speak of the ‘Mediterranean style suburbia’ and ‘endless villa complexes’ which now dominate this stretch of coastline.[7]

The resident population of the Algarve is approximately 350,000. However, the influx of tourists, time-share owners, second home residents and seasonal workers, during the months of June to September, ensures a considerably larger summer population. Tourism is the major industry of the province and represents almost 70% of economic activity. The agricultural and fishing industries continue to play their role despite the recent tourist boom. Portugal is also one of the world’s leading exporters of cork and the cork oak trees of the Algarve are a lucrative source of this product.

The History of Tourism in the Algarve

The Algarve’s rise to become the ‘tourist Mecca of Portugal’[8] has been relatively recent. Wuerpel has noted that the province was always a ‘fundamentally quiet and remote region’[9] situated on the periphery of continental Europe. Ancient Roman ruins may be observed throughout the region, and the ancient fortified city of Silves is testimony to the influence of Moorish civilisation. The restoration of the town of Sagres, which was developed by Henry the Navigator in the 15th century as an important naval centre, now serves as a tourist attraction. However, as Kaplan has highlighted ‘the Algarve is not rich in historical monuments.’[10] This is partly due to the deleterious earthquake of 1755 which destroyed many of the ancient sites of antiquity. Wuerpel has commended the province for its unique character by noting that ‘the region has remained singularly distinctive, more Mediterranean than Atlantic, more African than European.’[11]

Visits to the Algarve, before the coming of the railway in the late 19th century, were mainly restricted to the health spas of the upland region, such as Caldas de Monchique which dates from the 17th century. Communications between Lisbon and the Algarve were poor and consisted of crude mule trails. In 1889 a railroad arrived in Faro and a gradual east/west expansion of the line continued into the 20th century.

The 1898 edition of Baedeker’s guide book of Spain and Portugal only speaks of the small towns of Faro and Loue, which were by then accessible by train. However, by the 1908 edition the author is more revealing when he states that ‘most travellers will scarcely find it worthwhile to visit South Portugal’ and adds, ‘the towns contain nothing of much interest while the places on the coast resemble large fishing villages.’[12] Indeed, prior to the second world war Portugal was an unfashionable resort and tourism remained a peripheral industry. In the 1930s only 36,000 tourists were visiting the country on an annual basis compared to over 5 million who visited the more well-known resorts of Italy.[13]

As Andrew Holden has explained, ‘since the 1950s there has been a rapid increase in the demand in western societies for people to travel internationally and visit a variety of different destinations.’[14] The post-war economic boom and subsequent rise in disposable income levels now permits more and more people with the opportunity to travel. Since the 1960s Portugal has benefited economically from the influx of tourists and the coming of mass tourism. Improved communication links, such as the international airport near Faro which was opened in 1965, have boosted the performance of the tourist and leisure sectors considerably. Tourist numbers have exhibited an almost continuous upward trend since the 1950s, save for a slight downturn in the 1970s after the April Revolution.

Sustainable Development

The notion of ‘sustainable development’ has been promoted by agencies at a local, national and international level since the 1980s. An increased awareness of the finite nature of natural resources within the modern global economy has dramatically altered the decision making process. Holden has noted that the concept of conservation can be traced back to the mid-nineteenth century but that the principles of ‘sustainable development’ have evolved rapidly in recent years. The publication of the Brundtland Report in 1987 and the promotion of the United Nation’s Agenda 21 programme by governments throughout the world have assisted in the solidification of the concept. However, Holden is quick to emphasise that ‘sustainable development is not concerned with the preservation of the physical environment but with its development on sustainable principles.’[15] In essence, sustainable development seeks to obtain a state of equilibrium between economical, political, cultural, social and environmental interests within a particular area. Developers should be allowed to promote new projects provided the local population benefits and environmental regulations are observed. The Brundtland report acknowledged that such development is necessary in order to alleviate poverty and reduce migration from disadvantaged regions. However, many commentators have criticised the concept of sustainability due to its ambiguity. Some feel that the principle of agencies, who often hold opposing interests, functioning in a state of equilibrium is idealistic and not practical.

Sustainable Development in the Algarve

The Portuguese have been determined not to overdevelop their tourist regions and emulate mistakes made by their Spanish neighbours in regions such as the Costa del Sol. Traditionally the industry has attempted to orientate itself towards the upper end of the market and avoid the deleterious effects of mass tourism.

Prior to the April Revolution the government promoted tourist development in the Algarve and generous state subsidies were provided for the province. Strict design restrictions were placed on building projects as the authorities attempted to maintain the distinctive Moorish characteristics of the region. However, since the 1970s commentators such as Kaplan have been critical of ‘uncontrolled development’ and how too many developments ‘bear the marks of speculation and indifference to the shape, the feel, the colour of the land.’[16] De La Cal has also drawn attention to the ‘resulting hodge-podge of uncontrolled building’ which exists on the coastline west of Faro and may threaten to scare off many potential visitors who dislike crowded beaches and urban environments.[17] Indeed, by the 1980s many felt that the Algarve was in danger of becoming a victim of its own success and that the environmental impact of the new industry would have to be controlled.

The Portuguese government had identified 75 sites which were to be designated as protected areas as early as 1973. The Algarve hosted 8 of these sites and a culture of conservation has since been cultivated in the province. Nature reserves such as the Parque Natural do Sudouste and zones of restricted development have now been established in order to maintain the unique environment. The Plano Nacional de Turismo (1986-89) sought to develop the tourist industry in the Algarve but identified that the natural environment and traditions of the province should be maintained. The government has attempted to realise these objectives through rural tourist programmes, like in north-eastern Algarve, which has suffered from severe depopulation since the 1950s. Tourists are now encouraged to visit the villages of the interior and sample the unique culture. Controlled eco-tourism to the east of Faro and on the western Atlantic coast is intended to generate new sources of income whilst protecting wildlife and fauna. Critics of the National Plan include Lewis and Williams, who believe that economic considerations shall always take precedence in a disadvantaged region such as the Algarve, and that increased environmental and cultural degradation is inevitable.[18] Kaplan insists that the environment is merely a secondary consideration and that ‘money is arbiter’ but concedes that the beaches of the Algarve are extremely clean.[19]

The World Travel and Tourism Council (WTTC) have recently assessed the impact of tourism on the economy in the Algarve. They have concluded that the Algarve has the potential to be ‘one of Europe’s most sought after tourism destinations’ and that the province’s unique environment, heritage and culture remain largely ‘untapped.’[21] The organisation has provided a range of recommendations in order to ensure sustainable development in the region.

The council suggest that leisure park facilities, such as the Aqualine theme park near Altura, should be encouraged and promoted in order to attract clientele on a year round basis. They have discovered that such facilities are popular with visitors from Portugal and neighbouring Spain. Such a localised customer base would naturally contribute greatly to the sustainability of the Algarve’s economy. However, the council concedes that Spanish tourists tend to stay for a short period and thus, spend less than northern European and American visitors.

The development of ‘golf tourism’ in the region also provides the possibility of employment out with the summer peak. The agreeable climate and excellent golfing facilities of the Algarve have the potential to attract visitors during autumn and winter. The organisation has also identified the threat posed by new low-budget resorts in eastern Europe. They insist that market and product diversification is now imperative in order to maintain a thriving economy. By targeting senior travellers in northern Europe and by promoting top quality retirement accommodation in the province, the council believes that the Algarve can reduce its dependency on large scale tourist operators. This is also consistent with the Portuguese orientation towards the more exclusive end of the market. However, the council are concerned that building restrictions on the coast may be hindering development in the region and the sustainability of the tourist industry. They highlight that there is a shortage of high quality accommodation and that it is now over 7 years since the last five star hotel development.[21]

Lewis and Williams have noted the over dependency of the Algarve on visitors from the United Kingdom and how they accounted for 35% of tourists by the late 1980s.[22]

The WTTC have also warned against this trend towards a dependency on the British, Dutch and German markets and recommends promotion in other potential markets. Williams and Shaw have identified that North American tourists tend to spend more during visits and it is hoped that many will be attracted to the new golfing facilities.

Studies of Alpine ski resorts in France have shown that the tourist industry is more sustainable within a region if local investment and participation in the industry is permitted and encouraged. Local people tend to be more respective of the environment and conduct business in a sustainable fashion. The recent international investment in the Algarve may have been beneficial in the short term but an over dependency on foreign investment may have negative consequences. Multi-national corporations may relocate as hastily as they locate in a locality due to international market fluctuations and erratic trends in the tourist industry. Kaplan noted that ‘foreigners are investing in the land, in commerce, in tourism, in the future of Portugal at record breaking levels.’[23] However, the recent promotion of more inland cultural tourist pursuits such as wine tasting and craft fairs is encouraging.


The Algarve represents a typical tourist resort experiencing a range of conflicting interests.

There are those who value the aesthetic elements of the province, such as Ellingham, Fisher and Kenyon, who complain that the ‘development and crowds overwhelm the charms that made the Algarve popular in the first place.’[24] There are also conservationists like Gordon Sillence, of the European Network for Sustainable Tourism Development, who warns of the depletion of the local ecosystem, forest and habitat of the Iberian lynx. Through impact assessment Sillence and many others are anxious about the continued level of development in the province and believe that the public authorities should do more to protect the environment.

Local people and the many Portuguese who arrive in the Algarve during the summer months to work in the service sector may feel that tourism is an essential and positive factor. The WTTC also espouse this view and feel that more should be done to encourage sustainable economic development in the region. They believe that environmental protection may in fact be hindering economic sustainability. The European Union has looked favourably upon the expansion of the Portuguese tourist industry since the nation’s ascension to the Union in 1985. EU funds greatly assisted the development of infrastructure throughout the south of Portugal and galvanised the tourist sector. However, commentators have warned that since the ascension of the new eastern member states, EU funding for the Algarve will decline considerably.

Clearly the Algarve is now at a crossroads in its quest for sustainable development. The WTTC have recommended that the government prepare a comprehensive plan in order to further develop the economy of the region. The organisation has also noted that the Algarve boasts some of the most beautiful and undamaged coastline in all of Europe, unlike its Spanish neighbours. Such a positive environmental factor, as well as the agreeable climate, will surely be of paramount importance as the Algarve attempts to target new tourist markets and diversify its economy in the years to come.


ANDERSON, B. ANDERSON, E. Algarve – Landmark Visitor’s Guide, Landmark, 2001, Pages: 9-10, 103

BONIFACE, B. COOPER, C. Worldwide Destinations: The Geography of Travel and Tourism, Elsevier Butterworth, Heinemann, 2005, Pages: 228-230

DE LA CUL, M. Portugal, Collins, 1988, Pages: 327-340

ELLINGHAM, M. FISHER, J, KENYON, G The Rough Guide to Portugal, Penguin, 2002, Pages: iv-x, 509-572

HOLDEN, A. Environment and Tourism, Routledge, 2000, Pages: 161-182

KAPLAN, M. The Portuguese: Land and Its People, Penguin, 1988, Pages: 23-24, 178-179

MABBERLEY, D J. PLACITO, P J. Algarve Plants and Landscape: Passing Tradition and Ecological Change, Oxford University Press, 1993, Pages: 219-243

MAGONE, J M. The Developing Place of Portugal in the European Union, Transaction Publishers, 2004, Pages: 85-100

WILLIAMS, A M. SHAW, G. Tourism and Economic Development: Western European Experiences, John Wiley and Sons Ltd, 1991, Pages: 107-129

WORLD TRAVEL AND TOURISM COUNCIL. The Algarve: The Impact of Travel and Tourism on Jobs and the Economy, World Travel and Tourism Council, 2003, Pages: 1-31

WUERPEL, C. The Algarve: Province of Portugal, David and Charles Inc, 1974, Pages: 15-43, 162-169


[1] A M Williams, G Shaw, Tourism and Economic Development: Western European Experiences, John Wiley and Sons, Second Edition, 1991) 108

[2] B Boniface, C Cooper, Worldwide Destinations: The Geography of Travel and Tourism, Elsevier Butterworth-Heinemann, Fourth Edition, 2005) 227

[3] M Ellinghman, J Fisher, G Kenyon, The Rough Guide to Portugal, Penguin, 2002) xi

[4] B and E Anderson, Algarve: Landmark Visitors Guide, Landmark, 2001) 9

[5] C Wuerpel, The Algarve: Province of Portugal, David and charles Inc, 1974) 29

[6] B and E Anderson) 10

[7] M Ellinghman, J Fisher, G Kenyon, The Rough Guide to Portugal, Penguin, 2002) 509

[8] M De La Cal, Portugal, Collins, 1988) 327

[9] C Wuerpel) 16

[10] M Kaplan, The Portuguese: The Land and its People, Penguin, 1988) 178

[11] Wuerpel) 21

[12] D J Mabberly, P J Placito, Algarve Plants and Landscape: Passing Tradition and Ecological Change, Oxford, 1993) 236

[13] D J Mabberley, P J Placito) 234

[14] A Holden, Environment and Tourism, Routledge, 2000) 1

[15] A Holden) 165

[16] M Kaplan, The Portuguese: The Land and its People, Penguin, 1988) 178

[17] M De La Cal) 327

[18] A M Williams, G Shaw) 127

[19] M Kaplan) 179

[21] The World Travel and Tourism Council, The Algarve: The Impact of Travel and Tourism on Jobs and the Economy, 2003) 4

[21] World Travel and Tourism Council) 16

[22] A M Williams, G Shaw) 113

[23] M Kaplan) 24

[24] M Ellingham, J Fisher, G Kenyon) 509

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