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Portugal is a hot destination right now, and while its 250 days of sunshine per year help make this Iberian nation literally hot, there’s much more to the story of how Portugal snagged the honor of Hottest Destination of 2018, along with many other accolades, at this year’s 30th annual Virtuoso Travel Week. 

Portugal set records last year with higher numbers of international visitors than the country had ever seen before. The number of U.S. travelers alone increased by 35.3 percent. Counting the latest 2018 data, which only includes numbers for January through May, U.S. visitor numbers have already increased by 27 percent thus putting Portugal on track to set a new tourism record. 

For Celina Tavares, director of the Portuguese National Tourist Office, these statistics illustrate why the U.S. market is a main target for Portugal and they also represent progress towards the goal of building “sustainable growth to combat seasonality and regionality in Portugal.” Tavares explains that while Europeans have a tendency to visit Portugal for summer vacation or short city breaks in major cities like Lisbon and Porto, Americans are flocking to the country year round and are often exploring several regions. 

“Americans are looking for something different to do in the destination. They’re looking for the authenticity of the destination and the [unique] experiences they can have,” Tavares says. “Those experiences are normally in areas that aren’t as touristy as Lisbon and Porto.” 

Although Lisbon and Porto are still the top two most popular destinations for Americans headed to Portugal, the country’s central region takes third place, which, according to Tavares, “shows us that [Americans are] the type of tourist that tours around the country and visits two or three regions” when traveling between these major cities. 

Whether visitors stick to these hot spots or venture farther out, Portugal offers a range of activities for every traveler from the active adventurer looking to hike, bike, and surf, to the history buffs who can take their pick from several UNESCO World Heritage sites and the national network of 146 museums, 800 national monuments, and more than 2,500 buildings that have been classified as having public interest. Golfers can also get in a round or two at one of the over 90 golf courses throughout the country, while food and wine enthusiasts will have plenty of opportunities to treat their tastebuds to award winning wine and olive oil, along with dishes from Michelin starred chefs. 

Visit Portugal's Celina Tavares accepts Portugal's Hottest Destination of 2018 Virtuoso Award
Visit Portugal’s Celina Tavares accepts Portugal’s Hottest Destination of 2018 Virtuoso Award.

Increasing Flight Capacity

While Tavares and the team at the Portuguese National Tourist Office tout these offerings as part of what has brought more visitors to Portugal, she also notes that increased flight capacity has played a big role. Portugal is the closest European country to the U.S. and currently nonstop flights are available from New York, Miami, and Boston, with additional direct flights from Philadelphia and Washington, D.C. made available for the months of April through October. New routes for 2018 include United Airlines’ Newark-Porto route and Delta Air Lines’ Atlanta-Lisbon and JFK-Ponta Delgada routes, which will be continued in 2019. TAP Portugal has also recently increased flight capacity by offering more direct flights. Tavares believes that the availability of these less time consuming direct flights is especially crucial for bringing in more American travelers who typically have less vacation time than their European counterparts. 

The Azores are also experiencing a peak in visitor numbers for this reason as direct flights to the islands are now available from the U.S. through Delta Air Lines. According to Tavares, the Azores was once a difficult destination to promote as it was underdeveloped and relied heavily on domestic tourists who would typically go once or twice in a lifetime. Now, things are changing. 

“That’s where the American market brings value to that specific destination because it is a more untouched destination,” Tavares says. “It’s a bit more for the active tourist or the nature tourist who wants to relax and feel in touch with nature.” 

Visitor Demographics 

When it comes to characterizing the wave of new tourists that are visiting Portugal, Tavares says “there’s a little bit of everything” while also noting that Millennials make up a large portion of the numbers. With Millennials representing an age group up to 38-years-old this means there are plenty of couples and families amongst the new tourists heading to Portugal. Tavares adds that the country is becoming increasingly popular for honeymoons and even more so for destination weddings with the Portuguese Tourist Office also increasing its promotion of offerings for couples tying the knot. 

“It brings everyone together to do something different and it creates new memories,” says Tavares.

What’s New in Portugal 

With more and more tourists visiting each year, Portugal is keeping up with the demand by continuously rolling out new hotels and experiences. Between now and 2020 there are plans to open 146 hotels throughout Portugal—49 properties in Lisbon, 30 in Porto, 29 in central Portugal, 19 in Algarve, 12 in Madeira, five in Alentejo, and three in Azores. A new unique hotel offering currently available can be found at The Winery Hotel Quinta da Pacheca, where massive oak barrels have been transformed into suites known as The Wine Barrels. These luxury accommodations are complete with a deck, a view of the nearby river, and a skylight at the top, allowing guests to comfortably spend the night in the vineyard. Cruising is also becoming more popular, and Portugal has responded by increasing both river and sea cruising infrastructure, including two new terminals in Lisbon and Porto.

“Porto was already big [for cruising, but I’m sure Lisbon is going to be really hot soon,” Tavares says.

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