Arnie Weissmann
Arnie Weissmann

What's more important to attract international visitors, the tourism board's promotional campaign or the national brand of the country itself?

I spoke at a tourism-themed conference in Lisbon earlier this week. Another speaker on the program was Adolfo Mesquita Nunes, Portugal's secretary of state for tourism from 2013 to 2015. He strongly believes the answer is: the national brand.

"Spain is associated with fashion, with gastronomy, with wine, with art. That" -- and not tourism promotion -- "is why people go there."

When he was the highest government official responsible for tourism, he gave part of his budget to the organizers of a Web summit because he felt it would burnish Portugal's image as the country of tomorrow. He pushed for additional funding for public universities, believing that if they ranked higher internationally, students in other countries would be likely to study there and leave as ambassadors for Portugal. As secretary, he eschewed hosting journalists from travel magazines in favor of reporters from other media verticals.

He also believes, however, that tourism secretaries trying to change the image of their countries have a tough time because there's little cross-pollination among secretariats. Such a campaign can only be effective if there's a shared vision of the country's image, one that can be intensified with consistent messaging across all sectors of the country.

That said, Portugal seems to be having its moment. This past July, 183,000 Americans visited, a 36% increase over the same month in July 2019. In fact, July 2022 was Portugal's best month for tourism ever. U.S. inbound traffic had never previously ranked higher than No. 5, but it may come in at No. 3, behind only next-door neighbor Spain and regional neighbor the U.K., after 2022 is tallied.

Why? I think there are a number of factors, some having to do with tourism, some not. Regarding its national brand, there's no question that Portuguese wine has contributed heavily to increases in visitation. I was in the Douro Valley, its best-known wine region, earlier this year, and its combination of scenery, taste and value puts it toe-to-toe with any wine growing region in the world.

In a July article, Wine Spectator praised its "unparalleled vineyard views, rich history, lovely hospitality and delicious wines."

The third speaker on the program, Sheree Mitchell, is president of Immersa Global, an upscale receptive FIT operator with a focus on Portugal's wine and gastronomy.

It probably didn't hurt Portugal's inbound traffic that United, Delta, TAP Portugal and SATA all increased lift in 2022, a year when nonstop service was the first line of defense against the missed connections and lost luggage that characterized this summer's "Airmageddon."

If you haven't heard of SATA before, you will again. It's the airlines of the Azores Islands, which this year added nonstop service from JFK by both SATA and United. As soon as people on the East Coast realize they can fly to the outrageously beautiful and interesting Azores in less than half the time it takes to get to Hawaii, SATA will be on many advisors' speed dial.

I think that part of Portugal's appeal is, oddly enough, that it's not in the news. (The news news, that is, versus travel news.) Their elections don't interest the U.S. media because there's little political polarity there. Generally speaking, there's very little drama: it ranks sixth on the Global Peace Index's list of safest and most peaceful countries.  

That doesn't mean it's boring, though I did think Lisbon was on the dull side when I first visited in the early 1990s. But I've now been to Lisbon three times since the pandemic started, and some neighborhoods, Alfama in particular, have as much creative energy, quirkiness and charm as any urban area of Europe.

Returning to Mesquita Nunes' comment that the national brand is ultimately more important than a stand-alone tourism campaign, I'd go one step further and say that, for a destination who's image is largely unformed, a single inventive enterprise can bring a destination's attributes into focus. Three that put their locale on the map come to mind.

The first is the restaurant La Huella, in Jose Ignacio, Uruguay, which was already a foodie pilgrimage site by the time Bon Appetit dubbed it "the best beach shack restaurant on the planet."

Another is Fogo Island Inn, built on a sparsely populated island off Newfoundland. It draws visitors from around the world for its unique architecture, cuisine and, yes, philosophy.

And the restaurant Noma added Copenhagen to many a foodie's itinerary.

What's particularly interesting about La Huella and Noma is that they existed in relative anonymity until, suddenly, they didn't. I sense that the same, writ large, has happened to Portugal.

Individual destinations and national brands evolve. It's a destination management organization's job to notice, distill and amplify what has become special. Easier said than done, particularly when an evolutionary turn cuts against traditional messaging. 

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