I first met Albano Cymbron at a Portuguese travel workshop. For those who have no idea what a travel workshop is – well, it’s where suppliers of accommodation and overseas services meet tour operators. These meetings are normally arranged by the tourist offices on an annual basis.
I had always been curious about the Azores. The islands were often mentioned on the news because weather ‘depressions’ or ‘highs’ always seemed to originate there. I also knew that The Azores islands were an autonomous region of Portugal. Albano was the owner of an incoming agency in Ponta Delgada, the largest town on the largest island – Sao Miguel. I liked Albano and felt I could work with him. He understood Sunvil’s culture and the requirements of our clients. He was passionate about the islands and the need to conserve their pristine beauty.My instinct was right and we have worked with Melo, his agency, ever since. Albano retired about five years ago and the agency is now run by Catarina, his daughter – equally passionate and very able.
The success of a holiday programme depends as much on the handling agent as it does on the tour operator. No matter how efficient and knowledgeable the tour operator, an indifferent and unimaginative incoming agent can spoil anything the tour operator is trying to achieve.
We were the first tour operator to feature the Azores in any meaningful way and Sunvil paved the way for others to follow. Since my first visit all those years ago, a steady stream of Sunvil staff has visited the islands – all nine of them. Sao Miguel is the largest, and very beautiful, but the islands are all very different and two or three should, ideally, be visited on any trip. Our Discovery team knows all the in and outs – what can be done and what cannot. The weather on the islands is often variable and flight schedules change. Even the best-planned itineraries, therefore, often have to be adjusted in order to compensate, which is where a specialist operator really comes into its own; we are always there to help.
I am glad to say that we have also contributed to the islands in a variety of ways. We support the local charity for homeless boys, ‘Casa do Gaiato’, we have contributed to the way-marking of trails and we support the very good Bradt guide to the Azores by buying thousands of copies and giving these free of charge to our clients, to help them make the most of their trip. We have spoken at seminars to guide hoteliers as to how best to approach the UK market and we work closely with the tourist board and the regional airline, Sata International. In 2012 we sponsored, along with the tourist office, a World Garden featuring the stunning plants and scenery of the Azores at the Hampton Court Flower Show, and won a Silver Gilt medal.
But, most important of all, we all love and care for the islands.
Over the years we have come under a lot of pressure to support a direct flight from the UK to Ponta Delgada, the main airport into the Azorean archipelago. We resisted for a long time, feeling that a direct flight would change the nature of the islands. But, finally, because we felt we could attract the right, caring visitor to the Azores, we committed to paying for half the cost of the flight from Gatwick to Ponta Delgada and, in 2005, the airline started flying direct. From sending a few hundred clients every year we went to almost two thousand.
The Azores are beautiful islands and the pace of life slow and fulfilling. The hotels are not de luxe; the service is homely rather than slick. The smaller properties are owner run and there are some beautiful manor houses which now operate as small hotels. The islands of the Azores are not for everyone – they are for lovers of nature, for walkers and for dreamers.
The local Government has now allowed Ryanair to fly from Stansted once a week. We hope that this does not signal a change in the type or quality of tourism that will now visit the islands. This is not, and never will be, a mass-market destination. After 25 years we have seen some – but not too many – changes (even, happily, after the arrival of EU money)! It’s the quality and not the quantity of tourists that matters and we hope that the Azorean Government will follow our advice and never forget just why our clients love the islands. We trust the Government’s judgement not to destroy the very qualities that have attracted us, and thousands of our clients, over the last 25 years.