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Re-Marketing Portugal

Portugal is currently running a new advertising campaign featuring images of dramatic mountain ranges, sun-drenched plains, castles, monasteries and lakes replacing cliché-ridden traditional beach scenes. Behind the slogans “Go Deeper” and “Think West” tourists are encouraged to explore inland areas of Portugal rather than the saturated Algarve coast which already receives around half of the 12 million tourists who travel to the country each year. The new strategy  targets “all year round” travel as opposed to just peak summer months and is designed to attract mainly British, German, Spanish and Dutch visitors with deep pockets within quality niche markets such as boating, health spas, gourmet eating, wine tasting, adventure sports and golf.

Tourism industry leaders here all agree that the new government emphasis on tourism is crucial to Portugal’s future as it is the country’s fastest-growing industry at an annual rate of 7%. The sector employs 10% of the country’s workforce and notches up nearly 8% of the GDP. Portugal’s tourism sector has much to offer the potential investor and the industry is still comparatively underdeveloped compared with Spain or France.

One of the most underdeveloped regions in the EU is the Alentejo by 2015 the physical and economic landscape of what was once a backwater will have changed dramatically. Portugal’s most arid region will reap the benefits of two huge dams, hydroelectric, solar and biomass power stations and a massive distribution system and irrigation infrastructure around Europe’s largest man-made reservoir ­ the Alqueva lake. Amid much protest from environmentalists the dam was finally completed in February 2002 and is now almost at full capacity. With 700 miles of shoreline the lake stretches over 50 miles along the Gaudiana valley and is about a mile wide. Despite the fact that strict planning restrictions have been imposed EDIA (Empresa de Desenvolvimento e Infraestruturas de Alqueva), the public company behind the Alqueva Project, is already planning to tender investments in golf courses, two initial marinas and exclusive tourist resorts that it says will be built around the lake and on some of the 460 new islands created by the dam. The Portuguese State owns and controls a 500 metre shoreline reserve area which will be protected from developers and waters around the lake will also be regulated to keep within a certain level. When tourism really takes off around Alqueva it will be easy to imagine that the agricultural economy will be outstripped by tourism but the plan is to keep as much traditional farming as possible to complement the gastronomic and cultural element of the tourist experience. Intensive irrigation projects to supply biomass crops and cereals will be kept well away from the catchment area of the lake and nitrogen and other chemical use will be kept to minimum. The lake will be a drinking water reservoir and will have to be kept clean by creating an ecosystem to naturally oxygenate the water and prevent huge algal blooms that have plagued similar dam projects in Iberia.

Thanks to the lake the Alentejo is now one of the Portuguese regions with the largest growth potential in terms of tourism. It has a great deal of space, and it is strategically located nationally, as well as in the context of the Iberian Peninsula. The Alqueva is less than two hours away from the Algarve, and less than two hours away from the largest Portuguese port, Sines. Only two hours from Lisbon, and an hour from the cities of Seville and Badajoz in Spain, the regional government is planning to build a new international airport near Portel and will benefit from a new high speed rail link running between Madrid and Lisbon.

Since the Alqueva lake began to fill up, the hotels in the whitewashed towns of Moura, Mourão, Portel and Reguengos de Monsaraz have been completely sold out. There are countless excursions and many tourists already starting to visit the lake. Until an initial marina is built yachts and motor boats moored on the lake are strictly controlled and licensed with every vessel obliged to run GPS so that boats can be tracked and kept out of restricted areas at the north end of the lake. Just during the first four months of 2004 hundreds of  official excursions run by EDIA, have attracted thousands of both Portuguese and foreign visitors ­ unofficial visits have been made in even greater numbers as mainly Spanish and Portuguese are curious to see the vast expanse of water and use it for outdoor adventure activities such as riding, canoeing, boating, black bass fishing, diving, windsurfing, cycling, bird watching, hiking etc.

An ethnographic museum to commemorate the village of Luz that was submerged by the lake is also attracting visitors who will also be fascinated to see the newly constructed exact replica village,  Aldeia da Luz, about a mile up the hill from the “underwater village”. The museum displays some of the thousands of archaeological artifacts that were hastily uncovered when the dam was completed ­ some, such as a Neolithic cromlech, were rescued and transferred above the water line. But sadly only divers will be able to appreciate most of the treasure trove of around 200 archaeologi-cal sites that were submerged by the lake including almost 800 prehistoric rock art panels and a first century BC fortress at Lousa.

Many of the tiny villages around lake will be major tourist attractions in themselves and have been designated “Water Villages” or “Aldeias da Agua” as part of the government-outlined tourist development project encompassing the lake. In a similar way to Andalusia’s “White Villages” or “Pueblos Blancos” the Moorish villages of Luz, Amieira, Alqueva, Granja, Estrela, Telheiro, São Marcos do Campo, Campinho and Póvoa de São Miguel will be geared up for eco-tourism. New “rural hotels” in keeping with the local landscape, youth hostels, camp sites, shops, restaurants, wineries and excursion centres are to be sensitively developed in order to preserve the historical patrimony of the villages without disrupting the local community whilst allowing locals  to prosper and invite foreign capital. These villages will provide some of the tourism capacity for activities associated with the lake – mainly watersports and boating.

These changes in the southern Alentejo will not happen overnight and although wide eyed visitors are beginning to flock to the area you will not see much in the way of facilities yet. New developments will have to wait for a series of green light before they are completed. The main “green light” is that of infrastructure to safely accommodate an huge influx of tourists that includes transport links by air, rail and road and basic services like  hospitals and the ever-important fire fighters.

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