The Balcoes Viewpoint in Madeira
Photograph: Shutterstock

How this Portuguese island is leading the way in eco-tourism

Madeiran people are trying their best to offset mass tourism and promote a forward-thinking approach to travel

Georgia Evans

The first thing you’ll notice about Madeira is its lush fauna. Its vast mountains come drizzled with rows of vines, banana plants and hydrangeas, which wind up cliffside roads. Known as the ‘Hawaii of Europe’, the island looks straight out of Jurassic Park, with Atlantic waves slapping against the sharp rocks of its beaches and hot African air creating a sub-tropical climate. 

Drive thirty minutes uphill and you’ll find yourself enveloped in clouds of cool mist, where contorted trees create a Bronte-esque landscape. It’s Madeira's microclimates that encourage such fertile growth, making it a treasure trove of kaleidoscopic wildlife, both on and off its shores.

This tiny island deserves to be kept sacred. It’s precious: a prehistoric relic where wilderness, agriculture and humanity collide. There’s a delicate balance at work here, where the Madeiran people are trying their best to offset mass tourism by promoting ecological travel – and earning a Silver award from EarthCheck in the process. 

‘This distinction reinforces Madeira's position as a tourist destination of excellence, focusing on sustainable development,’ Eduardo Jesus, Madeira's Regional Secretary for Tourism and Culture, told Time Out. 

‘[The award] gives the destination greater credibility and allows it to expand its access to tourist markets that are more sensitive to this issue. It's an important step in Madeira's affirmation as a global 'must-visit', based on the sustainable development of the territory and the involvement of the entire local community.’

So what is Madeira doing right? We visited the Portuguese island to experience its eco-tourism initiatives first-hand.

Sustainable hotels

Madeira’s capital city Funchal comes dotted with the usual package holiday hotels and large chains. But Funchal has a growing number of sustainable places to stay too. Further out of the city, you’ll find boutique spots like Quinta da Serra in the highlands of Câmara de Lobos. The certified bio-hotel has adopted technologies per the Green Key programme, meaning organic food at breakfast, a sustainable water source and wrapping itself around the tallest eucalyptus registered in Madeira.

Hotel Quinta da Serra

Modern options include Socalco Nature Hotel, which has a heavy focus on permaculture. The hotel collects and reuses rainwater, uses solar energy, carefully controls its waste and makes use of an onsite organic fruit and vegetable garden and orchard. The brainchild of Chef Octávio Freitas, it blends rural tourism, gastronomy and farming in one location. 

Low-impact tours on (and off) the island 

According to Jesus, ‘There are countless activities committed to sustainability in Madeira for visitors and locals to enjoy: walking trails, nature reserves, cycling, diving, boat trips to observe cetaceans, safaris, and more.’

‘Because sustainability also means responsibility, several companies in the tourism sector are helping to minimise their ecological footprint, for example by contributing to a reforestation programme, in which tourists can also take part,’ he adds. 

Madeira Jeep tour location
Photograph: Georgia Evans

One local tour operator, in particular, Adventure Madeira, specialises in such tours. The experience sees tourists pile into Jeeps driven by local guides, taking them from Funchal to the Unesco Heritage  Fanal forest, the volcanic Seixal beach, local restaurant Laurisilva and finishing with a poncha workshop at the Honey Museum. The whole aim is to promote a ‘unique sustainable experience’ through meaningful, locally-led activities (though it has to be said, driving a Jeep around a small island can’t be the most environmentally friendly choice). 

Local dining experiences

Madeira’s unique, prehistoric landscape creates a kind of meteorological phenomenon – and it’s the island’s ever-changing microclimate that makes it ideal for winemaking. Madeira specialises in fortified wine, as well as local biodynamic and organic orchards. Nestled into the sharp edges of the northern town of Santana is Terrabona, a family-run winery that grows its own grapes overlooking the Atlantic, under the shadow of the Laurasilva forest. Rooms here come complete with cork flooring, local art and access to gardens to make tea. Owners Marco Noronha Jardim and Maria-João Velosa even cook dinner for guests on one night of their stay.  

‘The region has fantastic gastronomy, and you can enjoy typical food with local ingredients in eco-responsible restaurants,’ says Jesus. ‘[Tourists] can also practice agrotourism and take part in the daily activities of agriculture to learn more about the sector.’ 

Quinta das Vinhas
Photograph: Georgia Evans

Another place championing this ethos is Socalco Nature Calheta. Created by chef Octávio Freitas, a local Madeiran, the hotel and restaurant aims to make Madeira a gastronomic destination through impeccable food and accommodation that doesn’t negatively impact the environment. That means everything is sourced with responsibility: produce comes from the surrounding agricultural land, which is fed via a carefully constructed irrigation system; the site uses solar energy; there is thermal insulation on the walls and roofs and the venue primarily uses biodegradable and recyclable products.

What the future looks like 

Madeira certainly sets a precedent for larger nations. In just five years, the tiny island will double down on its efforts to get a Gold award from EarthCheck. That won’t be without its challenges: preserving the island’s natural and cultural resources and focusing on decarbonisation will ‘require continuous dedication’, according to Jesus. But he’s optimistic. ‘The future of tourism in Madeira looks promising. The enhancement and protection of resources will translate into the creation of authentic products, experiences, and activities that, together, will result in an increasingly unique and attractive offer for visitors and locals.’

Time Out visited Madeira on an organized press trip with Discover Madeira. We received complimentary access to Quinta da Serra, Terrabona, Socalco Nature Hotel / Razao Restaurant and Jeep Tours by Adventure Madeira. For information on our policies around editorial independence, reviews and recommendations, see our editorial guidelines.

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