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Portugal Is Scrambling To Save Vacation Season From New COVID-19 Strains

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

Countries around the world are reimposing restrictions to fight highly contagious new strains of the coronavirus. It's a bad omen for southern Europe, where countries depend on tourism. Portugal now has curfews just weeks after opening to international travel. Those who work in the travel sector are struggling to adapt to the uncertainty.

Joanna Kakissis reports.

JOANNA KAKISSIS, BYLINE: Miguel Rodrigues co-manages two small hotels in Portugal's capital, Lisbon, as well as hundreds of vacation rentals around the country. He cannot stomach another summer with very few tourists.

MIGUEL RODRIGUES: Because last year - it's very hard, to be honest with you. I had to fire a lot of people.

KAKISSIS: Last year, Rodrigues had to fire a hundred people, most of his staff. This summer, he was hoping to rehire some of them.

RODRIGUES: I thought that from June, the things will open and start increasing.

KAKISSIS: Rodrigues is now giving his staff the bad news.

RODRIGUES: Because they were supposed to start now, and I had to contact them and say, OK, I don't know what will be the future, so we are going to put this process in standby.

KAKISSIS: Eduardo Miranda, who leads Portugal's national association of vacation rental owners, calls this the new normal.

EDUARDO MIRANDA: It's a little bit of a roller coaster, meaning ups and downs. So we have to get ready for everything.

KAKISSIS: Some rental owners, like Carlota Godinho have already prepared.

CARLOTA GODINHO: There's no point of, you know (sighing) - just going mad about it.

KAKISSIS: The pandemic forced her to close her rentals in Lisbon last year.

GODINHO: And, immediately, I started to plan. And I found out something very interesting. There's also a lot of people that are here working just for periods of time. So suddenly, I said, oh, hold on a minute. Let me adapt.

KAKISSIS: She tapped into a whole new market of travelers - remote workers, also known as digital nomads. Her rentals are now booked through next year.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

KAKISSIS: Portugal's lush archipelago of Madeira opened its doors to digital nomads in February with the help of remote working consultant Goncalo Hall.

GONCALO HALL: While the rest of Portugal's occupancy rates were 0% or 10%, here, it went to 100% in one month.

(SOUNDBITE OF BIRDS CHIRPING)

KAKISSIS: Hundreds of digital nomads now rent homes on Madeira, including Marie Tuason, a 24-year-old biomedical engineer from the Philippines.

MARIE TUASON: Actually, right now, I'm in my hammock overlooking the ocean.

KAKISSIS: She often spends evenings and weekends surfing.

(SOUNDBITE OF WAVES CRASHING)

TUASON: My surf instructor - he was telling us that they were very thankful about this digital nomad community because these people are willing to pay for surf lessons, are willing to pay for tourist attractions.

KAKISSIS: The digital nomads live near the seaside village of Ponta do Sol. Jamal Kassim, a Canadian who works in sales for a German software company, spends evenings at the Old Pharmacy, a traditional restaurant with specialties like...

JAMAL KASSIM: Prego, which is steak with the egg on top and fries. And I think everyone just reinvests their salary in the Old Pharmacy.

KAKISSIS: But digital nomads, who are young, mobile and highly educated, by themselves will not restore the tourism industry, which accounts for about a fifth of Portugal's GDP.

Luis Araujo, president of the National Tourism Authority, sees the pandemic as a wake-up call for sustainability.

LUIS ARAUJO: We have to be very concrete with this. We have been working to reduce the pressure from our main destinations, spreading tourism through the entire territory, focusing in the entire year and not just on high season. That's for sure.

KAKISSIS: Miranda, who's with the rental owners' association, welcomes a future of more resilient tourism. But, right now, he and many other travel professionals are scrambling just to stay afloat.

MIRANDA: There's no business in the world that can cope with two years in a row without income.

KAKISSIS: And for southern European tourism, the summer is the whole year.

For NPR News, I'm Joanna Kakissis.

(SOUNDBITE OF LUSINE'S "TURN BACK") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.