“Where other countries spend a fortune trying to attract “influencers” (shocking term, I know) on press trips to tout their best features and wares, Portugal has had the good fortune that it’s happened organically… “
SEPTEMBER 22, 2017 by Tyler Brûlé
“What’s going on in Lisbon?” asked the Thai gentleman. We were sitting in his boardroom high above Bangkok, a thunderstorm was cracking and blustering beyond the plate glass and other colleagues were settling in. A chic young woman chimed in.
“Yes, Lisbon, we need to go,” she said to everyone and no one in particular. The gentleman’s gaze swung back to me, he raised his eyebrows and smiled. “You’d like to know what’s going on in Lisbon?” I asked. “In what way?”
“In every way,” he said. “Why’s it so hot all of a sudden. I don’t think I particularly like their food. So why are people going?”
“How much time have we got?” I asked, explaining I could spend a lot of time on this as the transformation is not entirely straightforward.
“Go ahead, tell us. And I want to know why the Chinese are going there? Have they decided to colonise it like the Portuguese did with Macau?” he joked.
Lisbon came up a few days later in Melbourne and in Hong Kong last Friday and in Tokyo over drinks on Saturday. “Isn’t it funny how some countries throw a ton of money at CNN to market themselves but never get the cut through,” a colleague said. “And then there’s Portugal and I don’t think I’ve seen one ad promoting the place.”
On Monday evening I was standing atop the curvaceous MAAT museum looking out across Lisbon, considering these questions. The sun was dropping over the Atlantic, aircraft were lining up for approach from the south and as I watched them fall into a line and make their turn for their descent over the city I imagined them all coming from exotic locales from former colonies — Luanda, Maputo and small airfields in Cabo Verde. Along the harbour below, a Maersk container ship was pushing out to sea. What was it carrying? Hundreds of tons of cork for insulating a sound stage in New York? Thousands of pairs of sandals and loafers to line Nordstrom stores across the US?
While many will cite tax-free pensions, the low cost of living and a hotel boom as part of a revolution that has seen thousands of French arrive in search of apartments and many more for easy long weekends, there’s much more to the turnround. As I explained to my Thai associates, much of it has to do with manufacturing and the fact that the Portuguese still make things many of us need. As costs have climbed in Asia, and more European companies have decided to weave sweaters and stitch denim in the EU, Portugal has benefited from high staff turnover and creeping expenses in Vietnam and China. Legions of designers, pattern-cutters, production managers and brand owners who once spent weeks in factories across Asia have now been flying into Porto and Lisbon on day trips and have had a lot to do with creating a buzz about the place.
Where other countries spend a fortune trying to attract “influencers” (shocking term, I know) on press trips to tout their best features and wares, Portugal has had the good fortune that it’s happened organically — Italian designer enjoys a nice lunch in Lisbon after a day in the factory in the countryside, he tells his partner, the partner tells his magazine editor mate, and soon after there’s a glowing story about an interesting new street to sample in Lisbon or hotel to book into in Lagos (Algarve, not Nigeria).
The boom in tourism has come as a huge bonus. A wave of entrepreneurs, chefs and baristas has helped shake off the reputation for stodgy cuisine. And a tradition of craftsmanship has translated into hotels that show off good design and ceramic work.
Being on the edge of Europe has also helped. Lisbon and Porto’s status as “edge” cities has meant they’ve had to fight that little bit harder to be noticed while also having the luxury to look in on Europe and spot the opportunities, rather than being at the centre and feeling complacent. Africa and the Americas feel that little bit closer (because they are) and this has also helped draw investors and visitors.
Perhaps the biggest sign of a turnround is that national carrier TAP has shed the “take another plane” moniker. On Tuesday, I flew to Milan on a new Airbus with considerably more legroom than on my BA flight the day before, USB chargers at every seat and a crew beaming with pride. The same can’t be said for Ryanair and its disgruntled pilots.
Tyler Brûlé is editor-in-chief of Monocle magazine. firstname.lastname@example.org
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