Portugal Prepares for Tourist Onslaught

Article excerpt

I could not believe my eyes as we drove from the airport to the heart of Lisbon. The whole city appeared to be one huge construction site. 'Why all this mess?' I asked our driver. 'We are readying for EXPO '98 - the last World Fair of this century. You know, our city is full of history. It's a great place to hold this event.' The driver beamed as he manoeuvered through yet another traffic jam around piles of construction material.

Well did he have a point. Lisbon, a city of 1,700,000 people spread on seven hills, is well suited to hold this century's final global exhibition. It, like the whole nation, is being groomed, not only for 'EXPO '98' but for the expected future touristic onslaught.

Portugal was the centre of the world in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries - in the era when its ships went searching for new worlds. The riches they brought back helped to build the country's many castles, churches and other fine structures that one sees throughout this 35,612 square miles of land - treasures of a time when Portugal ruled the seas and was the centre of a wealthy empire.

During these two centuries Portugal wrote a good part of mankind's history, and vestiges of this can be found across the world. The nation's traditions are engraved on the stones of its ancient structures, and in its many museums and venerable mansions. The country retains an aura of this regal splendour in spite of the modern smog, traffic and urban decay found in many of its large cities.

With this imperial background and its many natural attributes, Portugal is uniquely suited to become one of the top tourist nations in the world. In spite of the fact that the country edges the Atlantic, its Moorish-type architecture gives it a Mediterranean aura. Its sweeping coastline of fine beaches with their romantic fishing villages and luxuriant-mountainous interior, filled with towering castles, medieval hilltop villages and royal palaces makes it a seductive land.

From the severe mountains, rich valleys and gentle rivers of the north, where the country came into being, to the tourist-saturated sunny beaches of the Algarve in the south, this nation of 10.5 million people has seemingly been created for tourism. Today, the Algarve and Lisbon are tourist infested, yet, the nearby countryside still offers picturesque white-walled villages, serene historic towns and hidden beaches.

May to September is Portugal's peak travel period. However, the climate is never severe year-round and each season has its own attributes. This, and the topography of the land, added to the updating and development of touristic facilities throughout the country, is setting the stage for the anticipated onrush of visitors. Today, tourism accounts for over 10 per cent of the country's GNP, but this is expected to rise at an accelerating rate.

Much of the tourist infrastructure is already in place. A new superhighway spans the country from north to south and Portugal is one of the seven of the 15 European Union countries which has dismantled the border controls between them. The Algarve, the country's sunshine province, is already one of Europe's most sought-after vacation regions, especially for British visitors.

Besides its fine modern hotels, excellent eating places and other touristic amenities, the Algarve has 10 of the country's 33 main golf courses on the 50 mile stretch between Faro, the Algarve's capital in the east, and Sagres on the southwestern tip of the country. The British account for 50 per cent of the golfers, followed by Germans, Dutch and a few Americans.

To lure visitors with something unique, Portugal has developed three distinctive types of accommodations with their dining places. Tourists travelling the countryside will find themselves staying and dining in converted castles, monasteries and majestic manor homes.

Many travellers delight in the 'Historic Hotels' operated by private owners. …