From CNN Traveler, 2018 by Sebastian Modak:
Last year, after spending five days on the island of São Miguel, one of nine that make up the Portuguese archipelago of the Azores, I boarded my flight back to the U.S. with two distinct impressions. One: The beauty of this place was overwhelming and unlike anything I’d encountered elsewhere. Its rolling, almost neon-green hills; volcanic, black-stone cliffs; and winding roads that lead to seaside hot springs and the kinds of fishing villages you thought didn’t exist anymore lend themselves to descriptors like “Ireland-meets-Hawaii” and “the next Iceland,” clumsy comparisons that show just how hard it is to encapsulate all it has to offer.
“The Azores were selected as the second best islands in the world for Sustainable Tourism by National Geographic Traveler. The survey involved 111 islands and archipelagos evaluated by 522 specialists. The Azores received 84 points out of the 100 points. The magazine described the Azores as “a beautiful place with green mountains and white and black picturesque towns ready to remain untouched”.
Two: Being in the Azores can feel like you’ve been let in on a secret, a Golden Ticket to these mounds of land that rise improbably out of the Atlantic, 900 miles or a two-and-a-half-hour flight from Lisbon. On a two-hour bike ride around the rim of Sete Cidades, a giant volcanic crater, on a dirt path overlooking two shining lakes, my only encounter was with a pair of hikers who looked just as surprised to see me as I did them. I remember thinking how that sense of surprise was likely fleeting: I imagined the hiking trails clogged with tour groups led by headset-wearing guides in windbreakers. But still, over the course of my entire trip, crisscrossing the island in a tiny sedan, I only passed a single tour bus—and that, with a city-block-sized cruise ship in port. I was told that this, in large part, was because I was there in November, low season despite a year-round mild climate that hovers around 65 degrees Fahrenheit. High season, which spans the summer months, is different, said everyone I spoke to. High season is getting frighteningly busy.
And high season this year, which just wrapped up as summer ended, was kicked up a notch as Delta operated its first seasonal flights to the Azorean capital, Ponta Delgada, from JFK. It suddenly introduced a whole new option to American travelers who previously had to fly Azores Airlines on one of two year-round (from Boston and Toronto) and two seasonal routes (from Oakland and Montreal) catering to the Azorean diaspora. Between May 24 and September 3, Delta operated five flights a week from New York-JFK to Ponta Delgada. We asked Delta for data on how full those flights were, to no avail, but the fact that the airline will be doing the same route next year points to at least some level of success.
But tourism in the Azores, while growing rapidly, is still a blip when compared to other destinations popular with the outdoor adventure set. The total number of tourists who visited the Azores, population 245,000, in 2017 is around 645,000. Iceland, population 330,000? We’re talking about 2.1 million individual visitors in 2017. And, it turns out, it’s not just because a lot of Americans still don’t know about the Azores as a stopover on the way to mainland Europe. It’s also because the islands saw the warning signs of overtourism a long time ago, and actually did something about it.
“[The Azorean government] has taken preventative action, not reactive action,” says Rui Amen of Azores Getaways, an online travel agency that offers package deals to the islands. “They always knew that tourism would grow in the Azores—this didn’t start last year. It started way before the Delta flights.”
In fact, the first phase of the Azores’ bid to ward off overtourism came as early as 2015, when the archipelago’s regional government collaborated with a host of local public and private stakeholders to establish some boundaries. Officials actually set a 20,000 cap on the number of beds that could be available in hotels and other official accommodation options (not counting Airbnbs, which number around the 300 mark at any given time, according to an Airbnb spokesperson). Three years later, and the number sits far below that limit, somewhere between 11,000 and 12,000 available beds at hotels across all nine islands. It is the Azorean government setting the worst-case scenario, before it even comes close to happening.
The next step is a plan to be the first archipelago in the world to be certified as a “sustainable tourism region” by EarthCheck, a travel advisory group that specializes in sustainability. To gain the accreditation, which could happen as early as 2019, government agencies and private businesses on the islands will be put through the ringer by the Global Sustainable Tourism Council to ensure they are hitting targeted goals for social engagement, environmental conservation, and responsible land management. It is, in essence, a coordinated buy-in from a variety of actors to keep the Azores the natural wonder that attracts tourists in the first place.
It shouldn’t be difficult to get the accreditation. On São Miguel, the most developed of the islands, some 29 percent of the total land area is protected national parkland (the islands have 23 different categories of protected land, from bird breeding areas to national monuments). There are 60 protected marine areas spanning the archipelago, home to 27 species of whales, dolphins, and porpoises. Three of the nine islands—Flores, Corvo, and Graciosa—are UNESCO-designated Biosphere Reserves, a title given to regions that “[promote] solutions reconciling the conservation of biodiversity with its sustainable use.” The accolades for conservation, too, have come in droves over the years. In 2013, the Azores was named the most sustainable tourism destination in the world by QualityCoast, an organization that judges sustainability practices in coastal communities, in large part because of the priority the islands have put on conservation over tourist dollars. The Azores have also consistently been included in the annual Top 100 Sustainable Destinations list released by Green Destinations, a non-profit.
It’s an alignment of interests at work. As more travelers grow conscious of the footprint they leave behind, those in the tourism space also benefit from labels highlighting sustainable practices. Azores Tourism, the regional government agency, today carries the slogan “Certified by Nature,” but has long promoted conservation and an unbridled wildness as the islands’ main appeal, especially when it isn’t exactly the beach-and-cocktail vacation offered on other European islands like Ibiza and Madeira. “It started as marketing, even if it was genuine,” Amen says. “People here have accepted and enjoy these titles—by doing a certification like [EarthCheck], it implies we’re doing things at all levels and other actors will have to accept these new rules.”
The residents, too, want to keep the Azores green. Maria Inês Pavão, a marine biologist who leads tours for the company Futrismo, said as much to me last year over a meal that had been cooked in the volcanic vents of Furnas. “We live well here. It’s safe, it’s beautiful. If you enjoy nature, you can do everything in a day: You can be in the sea, in a hot spring, on a volcano. The biodiversity isn’t huge, but what we have is so special.”
Of course, more and more Azoreans rely on a steady stream of tourists for their livelihoods. Dairy and fishing, long the primary industry in the Azores, don’t pay out like they used to, and tourism has been growing rapidly since 2015, when there was a liberalization of the airspace—read: the government broke its monopoly over flights serving the islands. Amen gives the example of cafes that have sprung up along some of the more popular hiking trails that cover the islands (more than 600 miles of them): “If it was not for the hikers, the local cafe or restaurant would just be serving the 150 inhabitants of the local village,” he says. “They’ve managed to grow and more places give alternatives to the residents, too. For now, it’s a happy situation.”
Part of ensuring that quality of life is spreading the wealth, so to speak. The Azores is not alone in dealing with tourists concentrating on single destinations, something exacerbated by Instagram geotags. The most popular attractions on São Miguel, for example—photogenic spots like the volcanic hot springs of Caldeira Velha and the islet off Vila Franca on the southern coast—have started limiting the number of visitors that can enter at any one time, and the most popular hiking trails have stepped up the infrastructure to control the flow of traffic and limit waste.
But it is still early. When I ask Maia if she’s worried Ponta Delgada could reach a point where Americans outnumber residents, she responds with measured optimism. “We don’t want to be ‘the next Iceland.’ It’s a cautionary tale. You look at the stress that mass tourism has brought on to that country and you say, ‘Okay, what can we do to not make those same mistakes?’”