Responsible tourism in the Azores

Responsible tourism in The Azores


Travel right in The Azores

Since activities such as hiking, mountain biking, whale watching, scuba diving and exploring volcanic landscapes are key to the Azorean economy, the islands take conservation, both on land and at sea, pretty seriously, making this a thoroughly satisfying place for nature lovers to visit.

There’s also active investment in renewable energy – the islands have generated hydroelectric power for well over a century, there have been wind farms here since 1988 and Sao Miguel currently harnesses geothermal energy.

In 2013, the global sustainability certification programme Quality Coast compared the sustainable tourism credentials of 1000 island and coastal holiday destinations. The Azores came out top. In 2014, it became the first ever destination to be awarded the Platinum Quality Gold Coast Award.

Wildlife & environment


LANDSCAPES, HABITATS & WILDLIFE

Protected landscapes and habitats


The three inland reserves created in the Azores in the 1970s – Reserva da Lagoa do Fogo (São Miguel), Reserva Integral da Montanha da Ilha do Pico and Reserva Integral da Caldeira do Faial – protect deep blue lakes, laurisilva forests, a towering volcano and a pristine crater, two kilometres wide.

Further conservation initiatives have followed. There are specific regulations for the licensing of this activity and a code of conduct that defines the rules for how vessels approach cetaceans in order to cause the least possible impact. The department of the University of the Azores dedicated to the study of the sea has carried out several scientific studies on these species, some in partnership with foreign universities both from the European and American continents. All companies that offer this service have a biologist who monitors the activity and a lookout on land who uses binoculars to spot cetaceans and relays the information to the skipper at sea. The biologist also has the function of briefing tourists about this activity, showcasing the cetacean species that may be spotted in the Azores, the most important aspects of their biology, behavior and conservation status. The biologist can also accompany the skipper at sea to provide further information about the species sighted. Whale watching companies can also contribute to research studies by providing information about the cetaceans sighted and photographs. Each island now has a sizeable nature park covering all the most significant mountain ranges and coastal habitats, and the remote, northernmost islands, Flores, Corvo and Graciosa, have been UNESCO Biosphere Reserves since the late 2000s. In 2013, the Azores joined the European Geoparks Network in recognition of its geological significance.
Despite the Azores having far more ocean than land, marine protection measures have lagged behind. Commercial whale hunting, banned in 1982, didn’t totally die out until 1987 and while local artisan fishermen use small vessels and sustainable techniques, commercial fishing operations, including fleets from France and Spain, use more intrusive methods that are potentially harmful.

A proposal is now in place to unite the islands’ 11 separate Marine Protected Areas and the 3km-deep waters between them in a new Azores Marine Park covering the Azores and part of the Mid-Atlantic Ridge, a region rich in deep seamounts and active hydrothermal vents which support unusual communities of organisms. According to Greenpeace and WWF, it’s crucial that this little-studied habitat and its wildlife are safeguarded from exploitation through deep water fishing and mining. The entire region could be a candidate for UNESCO World Heritage Marine Site status.

What you can do
When hiking or cycling off-road, stick to the trails to minimise soil erosion and damage to native plants.

As from 2015 it will be forbidden for shops to distribute free plastic bags, so avoiding the blight will be even easier. Just make sure you carry your own re-usable bag, and if you’re self-catering, dispose of rubbish carefully.

To keep up to date on the plan to create a new Azores Marine Park and fully protect the rare marine habitats of the Mid-Atlantic Ridge, get in touch with WWF, or Greenpeace - who are working on incorporating the Azores into a new network of marine reserves which it is hoped will cover 40 percent of the world's oceans.

Whales, dolphins and turtles


A remarkable 1,883 marine species have been identified in the Azores so far, with many deep sea habitats yet to be fully explored. Five of the world’s seven turtle species are seen here but it’s whales and dolphins which grab the limelight. Almost a third of the world’s 92 cetacean species, 27 in all, are found in the Azores – some seasonally, others all year round.

In a great poacher-turned-gamekeeper switcharound, some of the Azoreans who used to earn a living from locating and killing whales carved out new careers in whale watching operations after the hunting ban took hold. Unique to the Azores are the vigias, or lookouts, who play a significant part in the whale watchers’ success rate. They perch in coastal observation towers that have been used for decades, scanning the sea with long-range binoculars and signalling to the boats when they spot something. Before, they’d send up a rocket; these days, they’re in radio contact.

 
To get some perspective on whaling, visit the Whaling Museum in Lajes do Pico or the Museum Factory in São Roque do Pico. Both focus on the contemplation and preservation of species, and are examples of how the local population transformed whaling into whale watching. These factories and museums remain as a way to promote the heritage of the Azores, and create a sustainable income for local people.

What you can do
Codes of conduct are in place to ensure that whale watching and dolphin watching activities in the Azores are safe for humans and cause little or no harm to wildlife.

There are specific regulations for the licensing of this activity and a code of conduct that defines the rules for how vessels approach cetaceans in order to cause the least possible impact. The department of the University of the Azores dedicated to the study of the sea has carried out several scientific studies on these species, some in partnership with foreign universities both from the European and American continents. All companies that offer this service have a biologist who monitors the activity and a lookout on land who uses binoculars to spot cetaceans and relays the information to the skipper at sea. The biologist also has the function of briefing tourists about this activity, showcasing the cetacean species that may be spotted in the Azores, the most important aspects of their biology, behavior and conservation status. The biologist can also accompany the skipper at sea to provide further information about the species sighted. Whale watching companies can also contribute to research studies by providing information about the cetaceans sighted and photographs.

For general advice about responsible and sustainable approaches, see our whale watching and dolphin watching and swimming guides.

Birds


Cory’s shearwaters nest in burrows on the islands and head out after dark on long-distance foraging trips along the Mid-Atlantic Ridge. Over 6,000 pairs breed on Corvo alone, but they’re vulnerable to predation by cats and rats, a problem which conservationists have tried to address by creating a “shearwater hotel” of artificial burrows, well out of range of the town. Rat predation also threatens rare roseate terns, storm petrels and other seabirds.

The poster bird for conservation in the Azores is the priolo or Azores bullfinch, whose habitat is limited to a small patch of laurisilva forest on São Miguel. Farmers used to consider it a pest, but a crowdfunding campaign has helped plant trees in an attempt to reverse its decline.

What you can do
For information about bird conservation in Portugal, get in touch with the Portuguese Society for the Study of Birds, SPEA.

Responsible tourism tips


Travel better in The Azores

  • Reduce the carbon footprint of your flight to the Azores by travelling light – bring layers, but don’t overload yourself with clothes and shoes; people tend to dress down.
  • The Azores has a rural tourism movement which promotes accommodation in traditional cottages or farmhouses in authentic surroundings – a great way to feel immersed in local life and spread the economic benefits of tourism to remote communities.
  • If you don’t have your heart set on a warm, sunny holiday, consider visiting in winter – it’s quieter and the locals have ample time to chat. You could find out about local produce, history and traditions from fishermen, farmers and shopkeepers, or just hang out with the islanders in local restaurants, cafés and bars.
  • Don’t buy marine souvenirs such as shells, dolphin teeth or shark teeth.
  • On boat trips, pay close attention to the instructions of your skipper and guide – their aim is to deliver the best possible experience without compromising your safety or the welfare of any wild animals you may encounter.
  • When sailing, surfing or open-water swimming, be mindful of ocean safety – conditions can be unpredictable and the islands are remote, making rescue operations costly and potentially dangerous.
  • Be respectful when changing in or out of wetsuits or swimming gear – don’t just strip off in public.
Photo credits: [Whale lookout station: Miika Silfverberg]
Written by Emma Gregg
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