By Brigitte Hagemann ,AFP
LISBON — The famous number 28 tram, winding its way through the narrow streets of the Portuguese capital, is packed.
Foreign tourists are flocking to Lisbon, as well as the southern coastal Algarve region — and that’s just the shot in the arm that the crisis-hit country needs. “In the past few months tourism in Portugal has seen its biggest growth in recent years,” said Economy Minister Antonio Pires de Lima of the nearly 10-percent increase. In the first half of the year alone, the income generated by foreign tourists grew 8.2 percent to 3.7 billion euros (US$4.9 billion). There were 3.8-percent fewer visitors from neighbouring Spain, which has also been hard-hit by the economic crisis. More than making up for that however was the growing number of Americans, Germans and French visitors (up 16.8, 14.0 and 10.8 percent respectively). Christian Fievre, a retired craftsman from the French city of Orleans, strolled with his wife Maryse down the capital’s magnificent Avenida da Liberdade, a wide boulevard divided by a pedestrian pavement with gardens. “We hesitated between Barcelona, Rome and Athens, but Greece is struggling,” he said. “Here, you don’t get the feeling of being in a country in crisis.” “They are going to get through it, these are hard-working people who never complain,” he added. “Traveling here is a way of helping them.” Tourism, accounting for 9.2 percent of GDP, “is the sector that has most contributed to getting Portugal out of the crisis,” said Adolfo Mesquita Nunes, a junior economics minister in charge of tourism. After two and a half years of recession that has wiped about 5.0 percent off GDP, Portugal moved back into growth in the second quarter with an expansion of 1.1 percent. The flow of tourists into the country gave a boost to the national airline TAP, which in August carried 1.11 million passengers, the highest monthly figure they have registered. Things are also looking up in the hotel industry. “We registered between five and 10 percent more clients than last year, mainly from the United States, France and Germany,” said Carlos Jesus, co-manager of the Albergaria Senhora do Monte hotel, perched on one of the seven hills of Lisbon. The four-star hotel, which offers spectacular views of the white-and-ochre buildings below and the Tage River, is a favorite with celebrities such as John Malkovich. In terms of takings however, it still has some way to go before it gets back to the boom years.