The Azores are an outermost region of the European Union, comprising nine small volcanic islands located in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean between Europe and the EUA. This somewhat remote and exotic nature-based Portuguese destination holds an incredible combination of natural resources and social dynamics that create a unique wellbeing ambience. For that reason, sustainability has been a key factor in tourism planning and development, helping the region in achieving a paradise-like image.
Strategically, the Azores have strived to be positioned as an active nature-based destination, leveraging rich natural resources and combining the beautiful green volcanic scenery with the blue wild coolness of the Atlantic Ocean. Due to their geographic, orographic, demographic and social characteristics, the islands provide a privileged setting for slow travel and mindful experiences, on par with intense adventure activities with an exotic background. Even though the islands are not consistently perceived as a front-end wellbeing destination, the type of tourist behaviour that is possible to witness clearly fits on the wellbeing tourism scope. From lush green scenery and beautiful hiking trails to peaceful and picturesque rural settings, iron-rich thermal hot springs, delicious fresh seafood and exquisite cuisine, peaceful and welcoming people, and paradise-like coastal areas and beaches, the Azores can well be a trendy European destination on the post-pandemic future for wellbeing seekers.
Still, despite this great potential, since the islands are small and comprise fragile ecosystems, the Azores face great challenges to keep a well-balanced evolution of the tourism sector. A sustainable tourism approach has been at the core of the destination’s development strategy for more than a decade, aiming to respect the islands’ limitations regarding the carrying capacity and strive for the proper harmony between the economic, social and environmental dimensions. Sustainability in the Azores is taken very seriously by local authorities and it is considered a critical factor for the competitiveness of the region’s tourism. In 2007, National Geographic Traveller elected the Azores as the «Second-Best Islands for Sustainable Tourism», falling only behind Faroe Islands. The report included very relevant appraisals to the natural environment and cultural diversity in the region. However, it was also pinpointed that inappropriate development was beginning to appear and that really mobilized local decision markers to restate the importance of sustainable development. For instance, whale watching, one of the most emblematic tourism activities in the Azores, suffered some setbacks and limitations. In 2009, local authorities’ supervision efforts on whale watching activities were reinforced due to cases of non-compliance with regulations by a few tour operators. In 2010, the Regional Government established additional restrictions on the whale watching activities and limited access to licenses as a result of increasing pressure on the whales, dolphins, and their calves.
In 2008, the Azores Government announced the Spatial Planning for Tourism in the Region (POTRAA). It was branded as the fundamental mechanism to achieve the sustainable development of the tourism sector. In effect, it was an instrument to guide the various economic actors and discipline the administrative action, establishing the strategic tourism products and the evolution of the tourism supply until 2015. POTRAA established a Territorial Organization Model, with cartographic support, beyond suggesting a model for the distribution of the tourism supply in each island and a coordinated approach with municipal territorial management instruments. The plan clearly recommended the creation of Places with Specific Tourism Vocation, according to their natural, scenic and urban characteristics, in addition to special attention to more fragile ecologic areas, limiting their use for tourism. Although it has suffered some changes and adaptations throughout time, POTRAA is still in use. It is currently undergoing a major revision, that should be published in a near future, in order to be better adapted to a new paradigm in tourism derived from the partial liberalization of air travel in the region, which triggered the operation of low-cost carriers and greatly increased tourists’ inflows since 2015.
In 2016, the Azores Government presented a new strategy for tourism (PEMTA), but it was mainly based on competitive strategies and on a marketing approach rather than on sustainable development planning. Nature-based tourism, however, was selected as the priority product, complemented by nautical tourism, scenic and cultural tourism, and health and wellbeing tourism. Therefore, POTRAA’s revision has been considered critical to promote the protection of the islands’ environment and contribute to tourism development. It is set to avoid some of the impacts associated to the maturity and saturation stages of a destination life cycle, like polluted environment and landscapes, decay of heritage, water pollution, erosion, congestion and traffic, and improper urban development. In fact, the big tourists’ influxes from 2015 to 2019 have stimulated several investments in new hotels and tourist accommodation units – that need discipline to avoid oversupply and the destruction or deterioration of ecosystems -, beyond punctual issues related to hiking trails maintenance, traffic congestion, price increase in basic products (which has a big impact on the local cost of living) and even the need to limit or discipline the access to some popular local attractions. Prompt interventions from local authorities have been able to mitigate negative effects, but POTRAA’s revision will certainly bring enduring solutions.
The serious work and commitment in achieving sustainable development in the Azores are also evident on several UNESCO, RAMSAR, OSPAR and European Commission official classifications. Three of the nine islands are integrally classified as Biosphere Reserves by UNESCO, while a fourth is partially classified. The Azores have 13 sites inscribed in the Ramsar Convention on Wetlands of International Importance Especially as Waterfowl Habitat. There are 12 locations identified for the protection of the maritime environment under the OSPAR Convention. The Natura 2000 Network, an EU program, comprises more than 40 areas in the Azores, while there are two cultural sites categorized as UNESCO World Heritage. In addition, the Azores also have very specific and demanding Nature Parks (since 2008) and Geoparks (since 2010) systems, that cover all nine islands and privilege the appropriate management of protected areas. In fact, around 25% of the islands’ territory comprises protected areas, and since the islands are small and the land area is unevenly distributed between them, this creates additional challenges for spatial planning, urban development and tourism growth.