Back in 2005, I got a call from a guy called Miguel Carvalho from the Portuguese National Tourist Office in New York. He was the new PR Manager - and knew that lifting the number of Americans who visited Portugal each year from about 200,000 was doable. He knew it would take some smart marketing, and he had a small budget.
Today, Portugal's rise as a major tourist destination for Americans is a fact - with well over 1 million Americans coming each year. This can be attributed to a combination of factors, including its wonderful attractions, improved infrastructure, and the work we did together. And, I have to say that the country's existing ability to provide unique and authentic travel experiences also helped made it a standout destination And, while we don't get the credit for what we did, here is a glimpse at our successful approach and a few things I would have done differently.
We positioned Portugal as an "Off-the-Beaten-Path" Destination. As travelers were increasingly seeked unique and less crowded destinations, Portugal's distinct culture, historic cities, and unique landscapes were our point of focus in a blog, media outreach, and fam trips. Compared to some other European destinations, Portugal offered relatively affordable options for accommodations, dining, and activities. We looked at how Portugal had invested in modernizing its transportation infrastructure, including airports, public transportation, and highways. We always emphasized that Portugal offered a real variety of unique experiences within a relatively small geographic area. From the Fado of Lisbon to the nata to windmills turned inns to the stunning beaches of the Alentejo, we used a diverse range of landscapes and activities to break the "Spain and Portugal" concept. We looked at the rich history and cultural heritage, reflected in its architecture, museums, and local traditions. At the time, Portuguese cuisine was unknown, so we focused on the seafood, pastries, and unique flavors. Food and wine enthusiasts were drawn to Portugal's culinary offerings and wine regions. We made sure that Portugal became known for its stability and low crime rates, which made it an attractive and comfortable destination for tourists. We also focused on the fact that it is the closest destination in Europe to America. We invested in both Word-of-Mouth and Social Media.
We encouraged positive experiences shared by travelers through social media and word-of-mouth that contributed to the country's growing reputation as a desirable travel destination. We hosted top writers in individual familiarization tripsto share the untold story of Portugal. As Portugal embraced sustainable tourism practices, appealing to eco-conscious travelers who are looking for destinations that prioritize environmental conservation and responsible travel, we also focused on alternative energy, sustainability, and promoted tradition. In less than 15 years, Portugal's appeal to American tourists boomed. In 2018 we worked to see it named at an editor's pick as Destination of the Year by a major travel magazine. Our marketing was very good - maybe too good. The historic overfocus on Lisbon, lack of consistent branding, and the Golden Visa program lead to over-tourism, with an excessive number of tourists in places such as Lisbon, Sintra, and Porto. This brought negative impacts to the environment, local communities, businesses and as result, the overall travel experience. Over-tourism can lead to crowding in popular areas. When traffic congestion and overwhelmed public transportation systems become the norm, it can lead to closing of local businesses in popular areas. The wear and tear on monuments and landscapes is hard to undo. Over-tourism can contribute to a sense of placelessness, where local communities feel disconnected from their own past and surroundings due to the overwhelming influence of tourism. This affects the quality of life for residents by driving up prices for goods and rents, making it more difficult for locals to afford basic necessities. The rise of short-term vacation rentals and Airbnb-style accommodations contributes to housing shortagesin some places, as properties are converted into tourist accommodations. Economic inequality and challenges in maintaining a balanced local economy are often the outcome. To address these challenges, destinations like Portugal need to continue to implement sustainable tourism management practices. This includes strategies such as promoting responsible travel behavior, diversifying tourism offerings, distributing visitors more evenly across regions and seasons, better regulation of accommodations (short-term rentals), investing in infrastructure improvements such as rail, and engaging local communities in decision-making processes. By taking a proactive approach to better managing tourism, Portugal can mitigate the negative impacts of over tourism and ensure that its unique cultural and natural assets are there for both locals and future generations of guests. Portugal is at a crossroads - with most paths leading to success. A clear brand, better overall infrastructure, and marketing the whole country with a focus on sustainable practices can help Portugal to grow and thrive - all based on the work Miguel and I started in 2005.
Jayme H. Simões