Paul Blaney looks at what’s on offer in five of the country’s tourism hotbeds
Like many other countries, Portugal has been on a rollercoaster ride in terms of tourism. The country established a strong presence from the 1980s, largely in the package holiday sector, before starting to diversify and develop product beyond the Algarve.
Since 2008 the global downturn has hit consumer spending in Portugal’s key source markets and together with the strong euro this has slowed the pace of recovery.
According to the Portuguese tourist office in London, however, the country had its best year ever in 2010, with tourism revenue up by more than 10% to €7.5 billion. UK visitor numbers totalled almost two million, a 5.3% increase on 2009. What’s more, 2011 revenue is already up 8% on last year.
Outside the Algarve, key growth areas are northern Portugal, Madeira and Lisbon. The key factor is air access; Ryanair has hubs in Porto and the Algarve while easyJet has targeted Lisbon as a future hub.
Other carriers boosting their Portugal services include British Airways City Flyer (London City to Faro), TAP (Manchester-Lisbon), and Jet2.com (Leeds and Manchester to Madeira). Jet2.com now flies to the Algarve from seven northern UK cities.
Destination Portugal reports a trend to later bookings and strong performance from the Algarve. The specialist operator reports a lot of inquiries for Lisbon and Porto city breaks, as well as for the Alentejo.
It is also working with Sky TV presenter Sarah Stirk, who runs a golf business, on a range of golf tours, and with Sophie Grigson to develop food and wine programmes.
Sunvil Discovery reports that its early figures are up on last year, with particular interest in multi-centre and fly-drive holidays to the Lisbon coast, northern Portugal and the Alentejo.
The company is promoting the Alentejo in particular, with its unspoilt beaches, historic cities of Beja and Evora, and hideaway villas. Sunvil has a new weekly BMI charter flight this summer into Beja too.
Here’s a quick guide to the key tourism regions of the country.
The elegant Portuguese capital on the River Tagus boasts castles and monasteries, trams and tugboats, boutique shopping and barlife, fado music and a vibrant club scene.
The city, built on seven hills, contains distinct districts, including medieval Alfama, historic Baixa and the Bairro Alto – accessed by funicular or lift. The riverside site of Expo ’98 has become a major draw for its shopping, restaurants, nightlife and aquarium.
A short train ride from the centre takes you to the hills and royal palaces of Sintra, or to the cafes and beaches of the Lisbon coast – Estoril and Cascais (where a new Onyria Marinha boutique hotel and spa opened in March). A little further north is Ericeira, home to surfing and superb golf courses.
The country’s southern coastal strip was the original face of Portuguese tourism. It remains a magnet for package holidays, with a range of hotels and villas, exquisite beaches, fine food and wine – more than just Mateus Rosé! – and all just a couple of hours from the UK.
Moreover, the Algarve has extended its appeal in recent years, responding to the demand for green tourism, family fun, heritage tourism and spa breaks.Plus, of course, it boasts world-class, emerald-green golf courses.
It’s well worth taking a look at ‘Allgarve’, an event promotion and planning programme that aims to attract UK visitors to a series of high-energy sporting, cultural and gastronomic events in the region.
Portugal’s northern city, flanking the River Douro, rivals Lisbon for nightlife, shopping, restaurants and architecture.
Culturally, too, it’s an extremely happening city. Architecture ranges from a medieval cathedral to art nouveau cafés and the state-of-the-art Casa da Musica concert hall.
A few miles downstream are the Atlantic beaches; upstream are the terraced vineyards of the Douro valley. Porto is the gateway to hills, coastline and medieval cities of northern Portugal.
The subtropical island of Madeira, a three-hour flight from the UK, is celebrated for more than its sunshine and warm waters – and for being the birthplace of Cristiano Ronaldo. It is known as the island of flowers and, of course, it’s the home of the delicious dessert wine.
Madeira’s wonderful climate makes it a great place to relax, whether in one of the luxury south coast hotels around Funchal, out and about on the Atlantic, or on the island’s walking trails. And, with shirt-sleeve weather year-round, Madeira is a golfer’s paradise.
The Silver Coast
The central Portuguese coastline, between Lisbon and Porto, is blessedly undeveloped, with miles of fantastic beaches plus picturesque towns and fishing villages. The art nouveau town of Aveiro is a particular highlight.
Inland is Portugal’s third city, Coimbra, whose baroque architecture and student traditions make it Portugal’s Oxford and Cambridge rolled into one. A little further east is the Serra d’Estrella mountain range.
Newly renovated this year is the stately Hotel Aveiro Palace, while the 80-room Sana Silver Coast Hotel recently opened.
Sunvil Discovery offers a three-night break in Porto this summer from £403 based on two sharing. The price includes B&B at the Hotel Mercure Porto Centro, transfers and TAP flights.
Book it: sunvil.co.uk, 020 8758 4722
Great Rail Journeys offers a 15-day escorted tour of Portugal this summer. The itinerary takes in Porto and the Douro valley, Guimaraes and Lisbon, with departures on August 30, September 27 and October 4. Prices are from £2,225 and include return travel from St Pancras, hotels, meals and tours.
Book it: greatrail.com, 01904 521980
Destination Portugal offers seven nights in Troia, 45 minutes south of Lisbon, in July or August for £850. The price includes flights with BA, car rental and B&B at the Aqualuz Suite Hotel Apartments.
Book it: destination-portugal.co.uk, 01993 707848