Madeira is a lush portugese island in the middle of the Atlantic favoured as a winter destination by slightly ageing British tourists and keen walkers – it’s also the most covid-free part of Europe.
There have been no deaths since the start of the epidemic and cases are numbered in the tens rather than the thousands. Face covering is required in closed environments such as shops and hotels. But otherwise it’s all very relaxed and the locals are justifiably proud of their near covid-19 free status.
Afternoon tea in Reids, a favourite hotel of Winston Churchill, and tours of Blandy’s, who have been shipping Madeira wine since 1811, continue unabated.
The key to all this is a decision to implement free covid-19 testing for all travellers arriving at the only international airport – unless they can provide evidence of an approved negative test in their home country in the 72 hours before landing.
It’s a big investment but has proved crucial in keeping the island’s staggering tourist industry on life support and it’s a model which could work for Heathrow and other British airports.
We put it to the test and were surprised at how smooth the whole system was.
Travelling on a British Airways flight it was apparent that most people on-board had failed to get a predeparture test in England. Unsurprising because of the pressure on the system.
And this, quite frankly, would have been an unnecessary exercise. The Madeira arrival system was fast, easy and of course free of charge.
The flight touched down a few minutes early and passengers disembarked into the warm Madeiran sunshine, still wearing the compulsory facemasks.
Passport control and baggage reclaim was completely as normal.
But once in the arrivals hall, we were greeted by rows of cheerful young people who undertook the registration including seat numbers, accommodation details, and contact numbers then gave us a QR scan code and ensured our mobile phones and emails were logged into the Madeira Health system. A band played in the background and as we lined up to wait for the test, female passengers were given flowers and male passengers were bizarrely given a banana and tourist information.
A statue of local footballing hero Cristiano Rinaldo wearing a mask looked on.
There was more checking of phones and then came the nasal and throat swab in an enclosed booth. Vigorously performed but no different to a well-conducted test in England.
We were given a stern warning to self isolate for 12 hours in our hotel room or accommodation. But even this proved unnecessary – within five hours the results of the test came through showing ‘negative’ and the holiday could begin. There have been a number of ‘positives’ , including some from the UK, and travellers have been required to isolate for two weeks and take further testing. Fortunately none have so far been seriously ill or requiring hospitalization.
Its admittedly a lot easier for Madeira – it’s an island and is already virtually covid-free. But the decision to invest in free testing has already reaped dividends. Madeira is on the UK’s safe travel corridor list whilst the rest of Portugal and nearby Canary Islands remains blocked.
But it’s a mistake to assume that everything is perfect. The huge decline in tourist activity has been catastrophic for an economy which relies on its flow of year-round visitors. Many shops and restaurants remain closed and some hotels are reporting occupancy rates of 20-30 per cent. The rows of redundant taxis are a testament to the stricken economy.
The only downside was our experience with vehicle rental at Funchal Airport, which was more akin to dealing with a timeshare salesman than picking up a hire car. In the space of just a few minutes we were told that our car couldn’t cope with Madeiran roads (and needed upgrading) and that we risked a 3000 euro charge for the slightest scrape. This really is something that needs to be addressed.
The good news is that there are astounding deals to be had for British tourists while the travel corridor remains open. We flew with BA holidays and the online prices are really quite remarkable – just be relaxed about face masks on board and near empty hotels.