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A buoyant business: Alentejo’s liquid asset

Alqueva houseboat
Alqueva houseboat
Written by editor

A unique Portuguese tourism product has enjoyed its busiest summer season since operations began in 2006.

A unique Portuguese tourism product has enjoyed its busiest summer season since operations began in 2006.

According to Manuel Maia, Commercial Director of Amieira Marina whose core activity is the rental of houseboats, onboard stays averaged 5 nights, an occupation rate of over 80%. Overnights increased to 100% during August, the month when most Portuguese take their vacation.

“It was the best summer on record,” he confirmed, “During August [guests] were staying for over one week, and we had many repeat visitors.”

Currently the only company in Portugal offering a houseboat holiday experience, Amieira Marina has seen passenger numbers increase year-on-year since its inauguration. However, Maia conceded that unusually bad weather conditions in May meant that 2011 figures are expected to fall short of last year’s total. “We didn’t see the growth expected this year, and we are slightly down on 2010.”

The marina, a recipient of the coveted Blue Flag award for environmental quality and sustainability, is located on Alqueva Great Lake near the village of Amieira, in the heart of southern Portugal’s Alentejo province.

At 83 km in length, a shoreline of approximately 1,160 km and a surface area of 250 km2, Alqueva Great Lake is the largest man-made reservoir in Europe.

The marina is the first port of call for boating and water sports enthusiasts drawn to this immense body of water and the land surrounding it.

Ground amenities include a café-bar and esplanade, grocery store, and a nautical sports shop. Perched nearby on higher ground is a panoramic restaurant, a noted culinary hotspot recommended by Michelin. The marina is also the departure point for sightseeing cruises operated by another company, Gescruzeiros, whose boats have a capacity for 25 and 120 passengers.

Amieira’s houseboat fleet currently numbers 15 vessels – French manufactured Nicols watercraft of various classes specifically designed for river and canal cruising. The boats can accommodate 2-12 people depending on the model and can be hired for a day, long weekends, or over several weeks.

Built to a high degree of comfort, each houseboat is fully equipped with a kitchen that incorporates a stove, oven, and refrigerator. Facilities also include toilet and shower units. Cabin configuration differs between the types of vessel hired but is ideal for couples, larger groups of friends, or families.

The self-contained nature of the product affords the opportunity for holidaymakers to pilot their own vessel and explore at leisure a region of the country whose geography has been totally transformed by this remarkable liquid asset.

Alqueva Lake was created in 2002 when the Barragem de Alqueva (Alqueva Dam) closed its sluice gates to allow the waters of the River Guadiana and several tributaries that rise in Spain to flood a vast tract of the Alentejo, ostensibly to provide much needed irrigation to one of Portugal’s most arid regions. It was also seen as an opportunity to generate employment in the agricultural and tourism industries. The project, though, was not without its detractors.

Environmentalists decried the decision and voiced dismay at the excessive loss of flora and the impact it could have on wildlife habitat. The flooding also submerged forever several important prehistoric sites and – most controversially – an entire village whose inhabitants were re-housed in a replica settlement above the waterline.

A decade on and criticism has largely been dampened, with most commentators acknowledging that the social and economic benefits of the project – not least the fact that the energy generated from Alqueva’s hydroelectric plant is enough to power up the Évora and Beja districts combined – has enriched an area of the country still heavily reliant on agriculture, livestock, and wood.

Tourism has prospered. Already highly regarded for its wealth of historic visitor attractions, the Alentejo is also celebrated for its traditional cuisine and world-class wines. The southern swathe of the region is characterized by a landscape of rolling plains embroidered with cork oak and olive trees. The peace and quiet is idyllic, the slow pace of life palpable. It’s into this pastoral picture book that the houseboats sail.

Exploring the lake requires little effort, though care is always needed when out on the water. An onboard GPS system and sonar unit provides secure navigation, and a series of buoys positioned along the entire watercourse pinpoint advised routes that take the boats past cherished landmarks such as the hilltop hamlet of Monsaraz and its stunning medieval castle.

Guests can create their own itinerary and choose where to spend the night at various pontoons and quays positioned near riverside villages. The boats can also be tied up at more isolated and sheltered spots by the riverbank or at any islet. Meals can be prepared onboard, or land excursions undertaken on foot to picnic or to sample hearty local fare in rustic restaurants. Taxi transfers can be arranged in advance to more outlying villages.

In addition to renting houseboats, kayaks can be supplied by the marina for a nominal surcharge. They are easily towed en route behind the vessels. Mountain bikes can also be hired and carried onboard.

The experience is all about exploring the region, remarked Maia, “Nature is all around you and there are plenty of secluded areas in which to relax.”

River and lake cruises are an established tourism product in many parts of the world but remain a relatively new concept in Portugal. The exception is in northern Portugal, where cruise operations along the River Douro are commonplace and attract international patronage. “But we are a different market,” stressed Maia, “and we can offer things that a cruise on the Douro can’t.” The freshwater lake is free of tidal movements and strong currents and safe to swim in, he noted, and visitors can take part in a range of other activities like waterskiing and canoeing.

Ocean-based nautical tourism is a mainstay offer in a nation proud of its seafaring tradition, but successfully promoting the houseboat concept nationally has meant luring the Portuguese away from the beach. “The Portuguese have always liked water, but they tend to forget what’s happening inland,” said Maia. But that mentality is changing, he suggested, “For example, a trip from Lisbon to the Algarve can now include a break at the marina along the way. People are re-discovering the interior.”

Conversely, in northern Europe canal and river cruising remains a favorite pastime. Maia’s international marketing campaign is, therefore, highlighting the Alqueva operation as an alternative but equally-rewarding experience, professionally run with full technical support and set in one of the most fascinating and culturally significant areas of Portugal.

“The UK market is very important,” he stressed, adding that the strategy is to target specialist tour operators. UK-based Sunvil already includes Alqueva’s houseboat operation in its Portugal program, and Maia is currently talking to Hoseasons, another British company well known for its bespoke houseboat holiday options.

Turismo de Portugal, the country’s central public authority responsible for promotion, enhancement, and sustainability of tourism activities, highlights the Lake Alqueva region as an example of how a somewhat isolated part of the country can benefit from enhanced and developing tourism infrastructures.

“We are using the Alentejo as an example of how a normally internal market destination can be ‘internationalized,’” said Turismo de Portugal president Luís Patrão during the recent Alentejo das Gastronomias Mediterrânicas International Conference held in Beja, 40 km south of Alqueva.

The conference was organized to showcase Alentejo gastronomy, and the region’s rich and varied cuisine, its wines, and other prize-winning products like cheese and olives were cited as some of the reasons to visit the province.

“But the lake [region] has also become a benchmark of quality and sustainability,” elaborated Alentejo Tourism Chief António Ceia da Silva. Reiterating the tourism president’s comments, Ceia da Silva emphasized the ambitious Parc Alqueva project – a 5000-acre lakeside resort development currently in its first phase, as “an example of how to create a different holiday experience while complementing the existing rural tourism product.”

Representing an investment of around 1 billion euros, Parc Alqueva will consist of upscale hotel units, golf courses, marinas, housing, a sports camp, equestrian center, spas, and other recreational facilities. The first golf course is slated for inauguration in 2012, in parallel with the opening of some of the resort amenities.

The Alentejo tourism boss also acknowledged the role the new airport located just outside Beja will play in opening up the region to more overseas tourists. “The airport is very important and is set to become a springboard for tourism,” he declared, “It also provides a platform on which to [advertise] our products.”