Visit Portugal President Discusses Tourism Recovery, Attracting US Travelers
The Portuguese National Tourism Board, more widely known as VisitPortugal, is celebrating what Luis Araújo, the group’s president, is calling the country’s best-ever year in terms of tourism. Portugal’s rebounding visitor arrivals come only two years after pandemic shutdowns crippled the country’s crucial tourism industry.
American travelers have been at the forefront of the tourism rebound. The 1.1 million U.S. visitors Portugal drew in all of 2019 has already been reached in 2022.
Now VisitPortugal is doubling down on the country’s growing popularity with U.S. vacationers, working with key travel advisors and tour operators and increasing its marketing of the country in several U.S. cities.
This past week, Visit Portugal partnered with Madame Tussauds Wax Museum to unveil a life-sized statue of Portuguese football star Cristiano Ronaldo in Times Square, New York. The event brought perhaps Portugal’s most recognized global figure to the attention of travelers in the country’s largest city.
During the unveiling, video and images of Portugal’s multiple environments, from lush forests and coastal areas to historic Lisbon, played over every electronic billboard in the famous “Crossroads of the World.” The life-like statue is now on display at the Wax Museum.
We spoke with Araújo about the unveiling, the Times Square billboard takeover and VisitPortugal’s campaign to further expand its U.S. visitor base.
TP: What is the tourism message behind the Cristiano Ronaldo statue unveiling?
LA: Today’s event has to do with the fact that the United States is growing tremendously [for] our country. It’s already our fourth [-largest] market and has been increasing since 2016.
Just to give you an idea, we had double the number of American tourists that we had in 2017 [this year]. So the action today has to do with that. We are starting a specific and focused campaign for the United States market, taking advantage of Madame Tussauds museum displaying a new statue of Cristiano Ronaldo. As he is Portuguese, we decided to join forces.
TP: What has made Portugal popular with U.S. consumers?
LA: I think it has to do with several things. First of all is connectivity. We have so many flights to Portugal from different companies, including United and Delta, [flying] from main [cities] including Newark, JFK, Boston, Chicago, San Francisco, Washington and Miami.
The second thing has to do with visibility. During the two years of Covid, we had workshops every week with tour operators and travel agents to specifically tell them about the diversity of Portugal.
TP: How has this impacted the country’s popularity with Americans?
LA: Portugal has become the first destination for surfing in the searches in Google. Although it’s a small country, it has seven regions that are very different and we have been very active in showcasing that through our campaigns.
We have roughly minus four percent of overnight stays [this year] compared with 2019, but we have 14 percent more of the revenues compared with 2019. So it’s been a very positive year, in fact, it will be the best year ever.
TP: How does your organization regard American travelers?
LA: The American tourist is a very good one because they stay longer and they travel inside the country. The experience of the American tourist in Portugal is a very positive one. They love the gastronomy and the landscapes.
It’s a very safe country to travel around even if you’re a woman traveling alone. You can go anywhere in the country. We often say we have a big purpose as a tourism destination which is welcoming everyone and respecting differences.
TP: As a tourism-reliant country, how did Portugal weather the pandemic?
LA: Well, I think every destination had two very difficult years. We pretty much focused on the internal markets. That was the big savior of our industry. [Tourism] represents roughly 12 percent of Portuguese GDP and 10 percent of the working force. So that’s 400,000 people.
We have a population of 10 million. It’s a small country but we welcomed 27 million guests in 2019. So it’s huge what we did during the pandemic. Of course, we didn’t know when it would stop and when we would welcome everyone again.
TP: What was your strategy to deal with the impact of travel shutdowns and post-outbreak travel restrictions?
LA: We decided we should focus on communication-building, trust and being transparent with what was happening. We wanted to keep the link with stakeholders, not only the tourists that want to come to Portugal but [also] our partners in the markets so that they understand what are we doing that is different.
TP: What did the pandemic experience teach you and how are you applying that knowledge?
LA: I would say that these two years for us have been a big learning curve. We could not keep doing things the same way, so we’re now pretty much focused on sustainability. Our main key performance indicators are no longer how many guests we welcome. Of course, we are still focused on the revenues but most important factor now is the kind of guests we attract.
That’s why we’re so much focused on literary tourism and our contemporary art and architecture. We just launched some tours in Portugal that you can visit the country’s modern architecture. I think all of this is positive in terms of how we performed and we’re getting the results.
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