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The end of the line
We ventured out on a sunny day where everything should have been possible, to discover very little was happening at all - and expectations lay at rock bottom.
“Since the tolls came into force, there’s been a massive slump in business,” Manuela Barros at the first/ last service station on the A22 told us.
“You could see it happen on the very first day. The most clear drop in business came from the Spanish. We used to be full of Spanish cars, coming and going. You hardly see one now. I don’t think I’ve seen a Spanish plate all year!”
Further on, in Sagres, percebes fisherman Carlos Climaco found himself calling friends at New Year – not to say “Happy New Year”, but to lament the fact that the town was “practically deserted”…
“I cannot believe it! It’s something you need to be here to appreciate! In the past at New Year there were Spanish cars parked everywhere – and camper vans, too, all from Spain. The camper vans were usually surfers, the cars more day-trippers/ holidaymakers… But I’ve just been round the whole town, and I could only find one Spanish number plate! It’s unbelievable what the tolls have done, in such a short space of time! They’re wiping us out of business!”
With the crisis already decimating the price of seafood delicacies like percebes (which Climaco used to be able to sell for at least €17 a kilo: the price has now dropped to €10), future prospects for beleaguered Sagres fishermen - who have been hammered by bureaucracy and new taxes in recent years - have taken another nose-dive.
And in Lagos where weather conditions over the festive holidays were perfect, fishermen bemoaned the “worst Christmas and New Year” they could remember.
“We used to get lots of Spanish people – even at this time of year”, explained Joaquim António dos Santos Patão.
“The Spanish and the Dutch are our best overall market. But since the tolls began, we’ve seen no Spaniards at all!
“And what makes it so hard is that the weather conditions have been the best… Yet I just sit here, day after day, waiting/ hoping that people will turn up. It’s just not happening… Once it gets to around 3 o’clock and things begin to get cold, I’ll be packing up. Next week, I don’t think I’ll even bother to go on sitting here”.
“The reality is that it’s not just €11 to come here on the A22”, another fisherman added. “It all depends on the size of people’s vehicles… caravans, motorhomes, jeeps, they all pay a lot more than €11. Add to that the cost of fuel in Portugal, the fact that IVA has gone up on everything – well, why would the Spanish even think of leaving Spain?! They’ve got everything cheaper there… and they still have the sunshine!”
A call to Euroscut confirmed that everything depends on the classification of one’s vehicle: jeeps can pay Class 2 prices (€20.50) or more, while a Transporter towing a caravan, for example, would have to pay Class 3 - €26.25, and that’s just one-way. In other words, it’s €52.50 in total to get from Spain to Lagos and back again…
“We’re down to one person in the service station now taking money for fuel and purchases - although no-one is buying anything, particularly since IVA went up a few days ago,” explained Manuela Barros, who said she probably shouldn’t be speaking to us as it “might complicate my life” vis-à-vis employers. She certainly wasn’t willing to pose for a photograph. “That’s definitely forbidden!”
“I doubt very much whether what we take now covers the salaries of the staff involved,” she added. “The nightshift, for instance, made only one sale last night. Just one! And we reckon we’re doing better business for the fact that we’re on the “free” stretch of the motorway” (the first two exits are not covered by Euroscut’s closed circuit cameras – just as the first exits from the Spanish border are exempt). “We still get a lot of people coming on just after Odiáxere and using the road until Bensafrim”.
Across the road, sister fuel station supervisor Ana Paula (unwilling to give last name) confirmed the picture, saying she doubted very much that the Spanish would be returning to the motorway in any significant numbers, even during the holiday season.
“They’ll use the unpaid roads – however long it takes them. People have been put off by the tolls – not just because they have to pay for something that used to be free, but because they have to pay so much! The prices are just too high.”
Manuela Barros said one English visitor had summed things up “very accurately” a few days earlier. He said: “The Algarve, finish!”, making a slicing gesture with his hand across his throat…
It’s not as though authorities weren’t warned of the devastating effect road tolls would have on local businesses: Algarve politicians from all parties spoke out against the idea from the start; citizens groups campaigned until blue in the face; boroughs near Spain have now taken to leafleting Spanish towns to inform people of the two “free” exits just across the border - and, in Lagos, the municipal assembly “rejected” the tolls, en-masse, in a heated meeting at the end of December. But, thus far, none of the protests have changed a thing. Lagos and the western Algarve, it would seem, are at the end of the line…