While Portuguese tourism officials won't go so far as to call their homeland a travel bargain, the destination is experiencing a boom among U.S. travelers looking to get more bang for their sagging bucks.

"Nothing in Europe is cheap these days for Americans, but compared to other western European capitals, we can safely say that the dollar goes much farther [in Lisbon]," said Miguel Carvalho, press and public relations manager for the Portuguese National Tourism Office in New York.

And the word is out, judging from a spike in arrivals from the States last year.

U.S. tourist visits to Portugal were up 20% in 2007; that comes on top of a 19% increase in 2006 over 2005.

052308portOverall, 23 million people visited Portugal in 2007, representing an increase of more than 5% over 2006, according to Portugal's National Institute of Statistics. By contrast, the number of U.S. tourists went from 204,000 to 244,000, the third-largest increase from any single source market.

The PNTO credits two main factors for the strong numbers. One is ease of access. In the last two years the number of direct flights to Portugal from the U.S. has increased by 30%, as airlines have increased capacity to meet demand.

The second factor is value. Carvalho cited a new study by Hotels.com that describes hotel room rates in Portugal as among the lowest in western Europe.

"According to the study, Lisbon is one of the only capitals in Europe where you can stay in a five-star hotel [for $200]," he said.

Also adding to the strong numbers are cruise ships, which increasingly are bringing first-time visitors to Portugal. Carvalho said evidence suggests that many of these visitors return for land-based vacations.

"Judging by the number of calls we are getting at the tourist office from people who visited on a cruise and now want to return, we think the numbers are significant," he said.

Carvalho admitted that when Americans think of Europe, Portugal still isn't the first destination that comes to mind, but he stressed that that perception is changing. The country is still very popular in conjunction with Spain, he said, and for the third time this year the tourist office is putting together a joint promotion with the Tourist Office of Spain to market the Iberian Peninsula as a whole.

"Many tour operators package the two countries, and it makes sense geographically to market Portugal and Spain together," Carvalho said. "Although the countries have a lot of similarities, they are also very unique from each other."

Living it up in Lisbon

Lisbon is getting good press in consumer travel publications, with increasing references to its burgeoning nightlife and international cuisine.

For art enthusiasts, the Berardo Collection, which opened in June, has been a key factor in raising the city's profile. The collection, which comprises more than 4,000 works of art, is primarily housed in the exhibition center of Centro Cultural de Belem.

Also new is the Future Design and Fashion Museum, or MUDE, set to open in Lisbon at the end of the year. MUDE will feature more than 1,000 examples of important 20th century design and fashion.

New hotels set to open in Lisbon in 2008 include the 44-room, boutique-style Altis Belem. The property in Belem, one of the city's historical districts, will feature a spa and swimming pool.

The 139-room Fontana Park Hotel, which opened at the end of 2007, offers three restaurants, including the Saldanha-Mar for fresh seafood.

The new, 61-room Hotel Jeronimos 8, also in Belem, lies near the Jeronimos Monastery.

The Hotel-Apartamento Melia Aldeia dos Capuchos opened recently on Lisbon's Costa Azul and offers sea views and beach access from its 69 rooms.

Portuguese up-and-comers

But while Portugal's capital is a logical draw for visitors, a number of other Portuguese destinations are garnering their share of the limelight.

Porto is increasingly popular, thanks to its seaside location and its reputation as a serious wine destination. "Porto is increasing its infrastructure, but at the same time you won't see tour buses the way you do in [California's] Napa Valley," Carvalho said.

Other emerging destinations include the Douro River Valley in the north, known for its architecture, and the Alentejo region in southern Portugal, which draws visitors to its ancient ruins.

For more, visit www.insideportugaltravel.com.

To contact reporter Felicity Long, send e-mail to [email protected].

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