On March 29, 2015, thousands of people made their way toward John Paul II Airport in Ponta Delgada, the capital city of Sâo Miguel, the biggest and most populous island in the Azores. More than anything, the scene looked like the filming of a Hollywood movie in which the populace was witnessing the advent of air transportation.
But in fact, the event was the arrival of an EasyJet Airbus flight from Lisbon.
Long cut off from the Portuguese mainland and the world by an airline duopoly run by the federal and local governments (who operated TAP and SATA airlines, respectively), the Azorean people—and tourists who wished to experience the Azores— long had to make do with artificially high airline costs.
A two-hour round-trip flight between the Azores and Lisbon routinely cost almost 400 euros. However, citizens of Madeira were flying roughly the same distance to Lisbon for only 100 euros. It’s no wonder that Madeira became a world-class tourist destination, while the Azores languished as a relative unknown.
With one strike of a pen, Portugal’s secretary of transportation opened the Azorean air space to all. In 2015, flight prices to the Azores from Lisbon plunged to 120 euros or less.
The Azores are now served by SATA, TAP, Ryanair and EasyJet. In the first month of opening up to other airlines, traffic increased 60 percent and prices went down 60 percent on average.
The airline deregulation was the first step in increasing the region’s visibility as an ecotourism hot spot. And in some respects, the world’s long indifference has worked out very well indeed—in 2014 the Azores was voted the most sustainable vacation destination not just in Europe, but in the entire world. That distinction, and a host of other travel honors, has meant the end of Portugal’s best-kept secret.