Steering a tourism destination through one of the worst economic depressions in living memory would seem a thankless task, but Frederico Costa, executive director of Turismo de Portugal, otherwise known as the Portuguese Tourist Board, was a picture of placidity when Portugal Life & Travel magazine caught up with him in his Lisbon office recently.
And there’s method to his relaxed demeanour because, as anyone travelling around the country today will tell you, Portugal is as dynamic and enchanting as it has ever been; the long, sandy beaches are still there, the golf courses look better than ever, Portuguese chefs are gaining more and more recognition for their creativity and the country’s accommodation portfolio remains on a par with Europe’s best.
In short, therefore, Costa and his team still have a magnificent destination to sell and, with the main generating markets such as Germany, France, Scandinavia and the UK starting to sprout the all-important green shoots of recovery, there’s plenty of reason for him to feel calm and composed.
“Portugal is a fantastic place to visit. Within a relatively short drive visitors can experience many different things, from the great plains of the Alentejo and the many beach resorts and golf courses of the Algarve to the cosmopolitan capital of Lisbon and the enchanting Douro Valley. It’s a compact country with a very broad appeal,” he says.
Costa has been promoting and selling his country for over two decades, and having spent much of that time overseas, he knows a thing or two about Portugal’s attributes as a tourism destination and, just as importantly, how the country is perceived abroad. “Portugal has everything for the 21st-century traveler and people are made to feel truly welcome here. It is widely recognized as a good holiday destination.”
One aspect he is particularly keen to stress is the progress Portugal has made in improving and modernizing its basic tourism infrastructure over the past ten to fifteen years.
Large-scale events such as Expo ’98 and the Euro 2004 football championships applied stimulus to the country’s rapid development, but a lot has been achieved on a local level in towns and villages right across the country.
A case in point is Quarteira in the Algarve, whose quality as a beach destination has often been compared, to its detriment, with Vilamoura next door. However, these two neighboring towns might have been described as chalk and cheese in the past, but this is no longer the case according to Frederico Costa. “Ten years ago, it could have been said that Quarteira lacked a certain appeal, but nowadays it’s a much better product and compares favorably with its counterparts in southern Spain. The promenade has been rebuilt and there are plenty of good restaurants around. It’s not a place for the luxury traveler, but it’s an excellent three-star, mid-budget destination and is a very good example of the improvements Portugal has made since the 1980s.”
It’s a similar story in other parts of Portugal, with much of the country’s infrastructure having been renewed or upgraded in recent years. Portugal’s product portfolio has likewise been improved and expanded with systematic development seen in the golf and corporate travel sectors and healthy growth in the residential tourism market. “Golf has grown considerably in the past ten years and there’s been a big increase in the number of people buying a holiday home in Portugal. It has been a huge effort by both the private and public sectors to upgrade the destination. There are new hotels and resorts all over the country, many of which have been supported by Turismo de Portugal,” says Costa.
Entertainment is another visible part of the country’s progress as a tourist destination. Turismo de Portugal invests a lot of time, money and energy enticing people to travel to Portugal, but it’s equally important to keep them busy whilst they are there. “Twenty-five years ago, people came to Portugal mostly for the sun and beach, but these days they expect much more in the way of entertainment,” he says.
The Algarve responded to the needs of the modern traveler by introducing the annual Allgarve program, a series of large-scale concerts, exhibitions and other events designed for tourists and residents alike.
According to Costa, the idea isn’t to bring lots more people into the Algarve, but to complement the region’s existing attributes. “It’s all part of reinventing the destination and developing the Portugal brand. We invest €15 million each year in projects of this sort, including similar initiatives that we have recently introduced in the Oeste tourist region north of Lisbon and Porto Santo Island in the Atlantic, because they are new destinations and need a push.”
Transportation has always been a key issue in the development of a destination and Portugal is certainly no exception.
Except for cruise passengers and visitors from neighboring Spain, the country has always been reliant on airlines bringing people in, and this looks set to continue.
A silver lining to this is the fact that since the advent of low-cost flights there’s been much more seat capacity than ever before and the future looks brighter still.
EasyJet is set to open a brand-new hub in the capital, Lisbon, later this year and other operators such as Ryanair have been steadily increasing frequencies and opening up new routes. “More than 90 percent of our tourists arrive through the airports, so we have a policy to support the airlines bringing in this business,” Costa declares.
Low-cost has contributed greatly to Portugal’s re-emergence as a first-choice holiday destination in recent years, helping to bring alive some parts of the country that previously failed to fulfill their tourism potential. “Oporto is growing like crazy!” he remarks, “mainly because of the recent upgrade of the city’s airport and the fact that Ryanair has a hub there.”
Costa also feels that the Portuguese capital is great value at the moment with many bargains available in the hotels. “Lisbon is a unique resort destination – I don’t know any other European capital where visitors can play golf in the morning before going shopping and enjoying an afternoon on the beach,” he adds.
And the prospects continue to look good, even in a year that many in the travel industry have already written off as one of the worst on record, although the ongoing problems in North Africa and the Middle East are helping to boost the figures in Portugal and competitive destinations like Turkey and Spain, particularly the Canary Islands.
“A conservative estimate for 2011 would be an increase of something between 5 and 10 percent in visitor numbers and anything up to 5 percent more bed-nights. We’re also expecting tourism receipts to rise by as much as 5 percent this year. 2010 was the turnaround year in terms of tourist numbers and, although some regions are slower to pick up than others, we’re optimistic that 2011 is going to be a positive year,” Costa announces.
And in this increasingly complex world, it’s good to know that some things remain simple and uncomplicated, which is the message behind Turismo de Portugal’s latest advertising campaign running under the slogan, The Beauty of Simplicity. “The idea of the word simplicity is very much in line with what Portugal has to offer. The destination is easy to manage; it’s compact, well structured and quick to move around from region to region, everyone speaks English and, above all, it’s a safe place to visit. Add all this to our rich cultural heritage, good weather, great beaches and breathtaking scenery, then Portugal can be considered a fantastic place to visit,” he says.
And Costa’s predictions for 2011 seem to be on a firm footing as figures for the first half of the year arrive on his desk.
Portugal is performing favorably, particularly in key external markets, as the number of bed-nights was seen to rise between 1 January and 30 June this year by an impressive 8.8 percent to 17.1 million compared with 2010, with international business up by no less than 1.4 million bed-nights.
France, Germany, Spain, Brazil and the United Kingdom were the markets that have shown best growth to Portugal during the first six months of 2011, with bed-nights from the latter up an impressive 20 percent.
These results also reflect a change in the fortunes of hoteliers in Portugal’s favorite holiday hotspot, the Algarve, where 535,000 more bed-nights were achieved compared with the previous year, representing an increase of over 10 percent.
Furthermore, early indications suggest that this upward curve continued throughout the peak months of July and August, with some hotels reporting that the summer of 2011 will be one of the best on record.