US business bible Forbes interviews Chitra Stern, CEO of our Corporate members Martinhal Hotel Group, on how Portugal is coping with the latest spike in Covid cases.
Martinhal Resorts is a collection of luxury hotels in Portugal that’s at the vanguard of several key travel trends. Those include the re-emergence of Europe as a destination for American travelers in 2022, family travel and the rise of a new class of digital nomads. I recently caught up with Martinhal’s CEO, Chitra Stern, in Lisbon to find out what U.S. travelers should expect when they return to Europe.
How did Portugal do during the pandemic?
The last 18 months have been challenging for all sectors of the industry, I won’t lie, but the lockdown in the early phase helped to control it and the Portuguese government acted quickly. In May 2020, we started to see the light at the end of the tunnel as Portugal’s borders reopened.
Really? Things started to bounce back that early?
Well, it wasn’t straightforward. Cases started to spike again, curfews were reintroduced and once again the process of booking trips was too complex and uncertain. But Portugal was one of the first countries in the EU to introduce the Clean & Safe certification, and in June 2021 joined the European Tourism Covid-19 Safety Seal.
Is Portugal out of the woods yet?
As a nation, we are now on a road to normality with restaurants, hotels, offices and schools reopening. And it’s going well. The vaccination rollout is efficient and I’m proud that Portugal today is one of, if not the, leading country in the world, with the highest percentage of the population fully vaccinated. This goes to show the trust there is in the free healthcare system, which is one of the main reasons why my family is here in the first place.
In your TED talk in 2019, you described Portugal as “trendy.” Is it still trendy now that we’re two years into the pandemic? And how has the appeal of Portugal changed?
In many ways, it is more trendy now because people are recognizing the country beyond its history, nature and avant-garde architecture and museums, but rather for its unique lifestyle and the authenticity of its people — especially in a time where we’ve all had pause and time to reflect on what we want for ourselves and our families.
Between 2016 and 2019, Portugal started getting the recognition it deserved from a business and foreign investment lens. The Web Summit, for example, announced in 2016 that Lisbon would be its host city for the next 10 years. This gave a boost to foreign investment, particularly in the technology sector where Portugal continues to grow and be a platform for venture capitalists and private equity and startups.
It’s not just business, but also a lifestyle, right?
Yes, I think people started discovering Portugal for its amazing restaurants, talented chefs, hot hotel scene, emerging fashion brands and museums that took on the world stage, like The Museum of Art, Architecture and Technology in Lisbon. It’s really got everything you want from Europe without being saturated with tourism. Most people now know that it’s a beautiful country thanks to its coastline, beaches, its islands like the Azores, mountain ranges and scenic vineyards.
I’ve always likened it to the West Coast of the United States, geographically speaking but also the appeal of its lifestyle. It is the California of Europe. Lifestyle is about many things such as living in a temperate climate, having access to affordable education and healthcare, safety and security and the good news is that Portugal scores highly on all these points.
And the people are welcoming, too. That’s something I’ve noticed here.
Portuguese people are tolerant and ready to welcome foreigners with open arms. In such a divided world, nothing is more important than this when we’re considering priorities in our lives.
You’ve said that you saw a surge of interest from Americans starting last year. Do you know what was behind that? Is there a lot of pent-up demand to travel overseas, or is it political, or something else?
Recent stats show that new residents in Portugal from North America increased by 12% year-over-year in 2020. And 2019’s number was 20% up from 2018. The U.S. was the third-highest Golden Visa immigrant after China and Brazil in 2020. The Golden Visa is a citizenship by investment program. I’ve been encouraged by the demand among Americans especially as it was only a few years ago that the country was completely underrated and largely unknown.
So what do they see in Portugal?
I think people have come to view Portugal as a safe haven in Europe, known for its stable government, access to nature and outdoor activities, its attractive living costs and cohesive approach to tackling Covid. Its geographical location is also fabulous for the global-minded citizen.
There’s also healthcare …
Right. Access to healthcare here is possible for a much lower price than in the U.S. I think all of this coupled with the fact that residents of densely populated cities like New York, London and Sao Paulo, to name a few of the key markets we’re seeing driving investments here, were actively exploring relocation opportunities.
The safety and security of cities here are also treasured by those moving here. The comparatively low cost of living has also been mentioned by many. The high level of vaccination and the government’s handling of COVID has impressed many. Moving here has been made easier by the Portuguese government who introduced the Golden Visa and D7 visa program, and projects such as Martinhal Residences that are aimed especially at expat families considering investing in a hotel-branded residence.
How did your resorts respond to the uncertainty of the last two years?
We introduced long-term rental offers with competitive rates across all four hotels and resorts, starting from €37 per night, based on a six-month stay, in the heart of Lisbon at Martinhal Chiado.
We met the demand for serviced villas and apartments that are outfitted with amenities including full kitchens, washer-dryers, gardens, balconies and many with private swimming pools. These offers started off being in demand among domestic travelers during the height of the pandemic as families looked for a change of scenery, and they continue to be booked among those who have increased work-remote flexibility.
You have a new resort under construction, the Martinhal Residences in Lisbon’s Park of the Nations neighborhood. This project is a little different from your four other resorts. You’re gearing this to long-term residents. Why is Lisbon becoming a destination for long-term foreign residents?
Since launching Martinhal Resorts in 2010, as the world was reemerging from the financial crash, we’ve become known for making family vacations seamless and offering luxury resorts and amenities for families in prime spots on the Algarve, Cascais and Lisbon.
We’re now taking our unique formula and hospitality background, to offer those same families, and new brand followers, the opportunity to make their expat-living dreams a reality and to help them make it a smooth transition. We have 160 apartments ranging from studios to one-, two-, three- and four-bedroom penthouse apartments and duplexes, ready for completion by summer 2022.
We are proud to be the newest development in the contemporary and emerging Park of the Nations neighborhood in Lisbon. 80% of the units have already been sold to buyers from all over, from Singapore to California. We’ve taken inspiration from some of the greenest eco-cities and neighborhoods in the world and have worked with the world-famous Portuguese architect Eduardo Capinha Lopes, who has imagined a spectacular green and leafy façade that will be a future landmark in Lisbon.
You mentioned that Portugal offers a citizenship by investment program called the Golden Visa. What is that and how does a program like that factor into an investment in your new residences?
The Golden Visa is one of the most popular residency schemes offered by the Portuguese government to encourage foreign investment. It’s a five-year residence-by-investment program for non-EU nationals and allows visa-free movement in Europe’s Schengen Area. It only requires an average stay of seven days each year in Portugal over this period, which can also count towards citizenship eligibility after five years. To be eligible, the minimum investment value for real estate is €500,000.
Interested buyers have the option to invest in one of the Golden Visa investment options at Martinhal Residences starting at €880,000 for our two-bedroom apartments — our studios and one-bedroom apartments have sold out.
When you think of family travel, you imagine a budget hotel or vacation rental. Your resorts go in the other direction — they’re far more upscale, full service. What’s the market for luxury family travel as the pandemic starts its third year?
It’s an exciting growth market as international family travel starts returning. Now that children are eligible to get vaccinated and families can plan to travel internationally once again, we’re already seeing the demand for our larger private villas in Martinhal Sagres and Martinhal Cascais, where they are celebrating long-awaited family reunions. Our festive period is nearly sold out in Martinhal Sagres, but for families still looking to spend their holidays abroad, we have limited availability in Martinhal Chiado and Martinhal Cascais.
You’ve been in Portugal since 2001. Can you describe the ideal visitors to Portugal? Who should consider coming here?
The profile of visitors has certainly changed in the last 20 years. More recently, typical visitors who find Portugal interesting to relocate to are families, tech entrepreneurs, cryptocurrency experts, self-employed people, digital nomads and retirees.
When Americans visit Portugal in 2022, what should they expect?
A safe, welcoming and modern country where people have gotten past the toughest times of Covid. Certainly, one can have a safe and relaxing family vacation that combines all the best parts of Europe, from its historic charm to its contemporary museums and incredible foodie scene.
Article by Christopher Elliott | Forbes