Portugal's tourism sector is fighting hard to recover from the damage wrought by the Covid-19 pandemic, with hotels and beaches now given the green light to reopen in early June. Reinvention through digital technology will be key to whether the sector emerges stronger from the crisis, industry players have stressed, noting tech solutions will boost communication and enable better safety – thereby winning visitors' trust.
Tourism is Portugal's largest economic sector, representing 16.5% of GDP. The country enjoyed record numbers of visitors in 2019, at 27m, including foreign and domestic tourists – making it the only bright spot in the local economy before the Covid-19 outbreak – as exports and domestic demand were already slowing worryingly even then.
As part of its Covid-19 aid package for the beleaguered economy, the Portuguese government has announced financial support totaling €1.7bn for tourism and related sectors, including €900m in credit lines to the tourism sector and €600m to F&B businesses. Forecasting agency Oxford Economics says tourism in Portugal will be the third worst-hit in Europe, with international arrivals falling by 7m this year, or 40% compared with 2019. Only Spain and Italy are expected to fare worse in percentage terms.
Portugal has been markedly less affected by the pandemic than neighboring Spain, with 1,316 fatalities to date. Prime Minister Antonio Costa said on May 15 that local beaches will reopen on June 6 with social distancing rules and a notification app that helps beachgoers avoid crowded spots. Hotels will reopen on June 1. The tourism authority has also come up with a “Clean and Safe” seal to certify accommodation and F&B premises that are regularly checked and deemed compliant with cleaning and hygiene standards that prevent the spread of Covid-19.
Technology will help create the conditions for safety – necessary to instilling the confidence of international tourists in visiting Portugal, Nuno Ribeiro, Executive President of smart cities software developer Ubiwhere, told a webinar, “Smart tourism: what about after the pandemic?” Such tech solutions would include areas of access management, surveillance for minimizing crowding, analysis of illness symptoms, and travel experience such as using virtual assistants and automatic check-in.
Until recent years, Portugal's tourism model was rather old fashioned, relying largely on mass summer beach tourism. Increasingly, however, cultural tourism has helped turn the country into a year-round destination, with Lisbon, in particular, blossoming into one of Europe's most popular destinations for tourists and business travelers alike. Indeed the World Travel Awards, the industry's main global event, last year awarded Lisbon the title of World’s Leading City Break Destination, Portugal that of World’s Leading Destination and Madeira that of World’s Leading Island Destination.
Tech boost for tourism
The Portuguese government has also been boosting the country's under-developed tourism tech sector to innovate across the sector and ensure its continued boom. Its blueprint consists of Tourism Strategy 2027 to double tourism revenue by that year and the tourism agency's Tourism Program 4.0.
Capital Lisbon also hosts Europe's biggest tech conference, Web Summit, in 2016, attracts more than 70,000 visitors to the event annually. It is estimated that this could bring in an additional €64.4m in spending, an average of €920 per person a day. The event is slated to take place November 2–5 this year.
This initiative is aimed at turning the nation into a global hub for tourism innovation, as well as ensuring sustainability in the model, and that all Portuguese regions are involved, as well as promoting new market niches. So far, since 2017, Tourism Program 4.0 has sponsored 11 acceleration programs, assisting over 250 startups. However, the most visible sign to date of the government's commitment to tourism development and innovation was the opening of its tourism innovation center, known as NEST, in 2019.
Located in the central-eastern town of Covilhã, NEST was established as a Public-Private Partnership with the involvement of companies including Microsoft, Google and the national tourism agency, Portugal Tourism, among others. Its primary functions include research into tourism innovations, knowledge transfer between companies and the creation of training labs with universities and incubators. In the second quarter of 2020, the center planned to host acceleration events like Techstars Startup Weekend, geared towards the tourism sector, as well as training sessions on subjects such as applying tech to the hotel sector.
FIT for tourism
The government also started the FIT Program, or Fostering Innovation in Tourism, run by the state tourism agency and Portugal's public VC, Portugal Ventures. FIT currently facilitates 40 incubators nationwide with most open to startups based in other countries, with the objective that some will then be tempted to select Portugal as a base of operations.
Foreign companies like B2B luxury hotel reservations platform Great Hotels of the World and power failure predictor Jungle.ai have made the move already. In 2019, 334 local companies participated in the program's acceleration or training sessions. FIT also gives Portuguese startups the chance to participate in overseas tourism fairs. One of FIT's largest local beneficiaries to date is electric vehicle tour company, Live Electric Tours , that subsequently attracted €1m in seed funding from Portugal Ventures and Startup Lisboa.
Another governmental initiative to boost tourism startups is Portugal Ventures' and Portugal Tourism's Call to Tourism, started in 2018. The initiative is open to both tech and non-tech tourism startups, with a product prototype and market feedback. The VC invests up to €1.5m in participating startups. Holiday rental self-check-in lock producer Homeit is one such beneficiary. The state VC invested €3m in 2019 in the startup together with an RMS for hotels, a luxury travel e-commerce and a supplier of natural cosmetics to hotels
Besides purely government-run programs, there are also several high-profile public-private initiatives running FIT and Tourism 4.0-aligned travel and tourism accelerators helping to boost the nascent tourism tech sector.
Growing tourism acceleration
Discoveries is the longest-running tourism accelerator in Portugal, beginning in 2015, with month-long programs run by private company Fabrica de Startups offering equity-free acceleration and Lisbon incubation. To date, Discoveries has accelerated more than 40 Portuguese travel-related startups including tour marketplace TourScanner and independent hotel revenue management system Climber RMS.
Beta-i's The Journey, now in its third edition, is a five-month Lisbon-based program that gives successful applicants the opportunity to develop three-month pilot projects with Portuguese companies like the Vila Galé hotel chain, Barraqueiro transport company and Parques de Sintra, a UNESCO World Heritage site. Another public-private program in its third edition and lasting almost half a year is Tourism Up, operated by consultancy and training company Territórios Criativos in association with Portugal Tourism.
The program has one of the largest accelerator intakes, with around 35 startups selected for the program that holds a nationwide roadshow in 30 different locations to encourage the widest participation possible from all areas of Portugal. Territórios Criativos also runs the Green Up acceleration program specifically for B2B sustainable tourism startups based in the Algarve and Alentejo regions.
New-gen tourism tech startups
Below is a selection of Portugal's top new generation tourism tech startups, including entities geared toward tourists and enterprise tech servicing the tourism industry. Complementing the sector is Infraspeak, whose facilities management software is used by hotels as well as non-tourism entities internationally.
Year founded: 2017
Founder(s): Djalmo Edgar Gomes, Luis Lucas.
Pitch: 100% sustainable and connected open-top vehicles for self-discovery of Portuguese cities, with free internet, live camera, GPS, audio guide and free parking.
Growth to date: In three Portuguese cities.
Latest funding round: Seed (€1m)
Year Founded: 2013
Founder(s): Hugo Oliveira
Pitch: Europe's largest rental service for campervans with over 1,000 vehicles in 50 destinations from Iceland to Greece.
Growth to date: Available in 50 European cities.
Latest funding round: Seed (undisclosed)
Year Founded: 2012
Founder(s): Andre Roqué , Pedro Viana
Pitch: Solves rental pain point of in-person check-ins with its remote self-check-in technology, integrated with rental platforms like Airbnb
Growth to date: Available in 15 European markets and used in more than 4.5m doors to date.
Latest funding round: Seed (€532,000)
Year Founded: 2014
Founder(s): Noelia Novella, Nuno Rodrigues, Weronika de Castro
Pitch: Cleaning and laundry services to help landlords and rental platforms to focus on scaling their business without housekeeping woes
Growth to date: Doinn now operates in 92 cities in Spain, Portugal, France and the UK with about 6,000 properties listed as clients
Latest funding round: Seed (undisclosed)
Year Founded: 2018
Founder(s): Giuseppe Lacarenza, Guillaume Picard, Joseph Demucci, Simone Semprini
Pitch: Portugal's first marketplace for tours, attractions and activities in 1,300 destinations in eight different languages
Growth to date: Offers more than 300,000 attractions in 1,300 destinations
Latest funding round: Pre-seed (undisclosed)
Year Founded: 2015
Founder(s): Mario Mauraz, João Feliciano
Pitch: Simple-to-use revenue management platform for independent hotels improving 90% of clients' revenue.
Growth to date: More than 100 clients.
Latest funding round: Seed (€550,000)
Year Founded: 2015
Founder(s): Tiago Araújo, José Mendonça and Pedro Gonçalves
Pitch: AI-powered multilingual chatbot for hotels used by major international chains in over 30 countries; social media and travel industry software like Sabre integrated.
Growth to date: Used by more than 200 clients including Marriott hotels; has managed over 2.1m interactions
Latest funding round: Seed (€300,000)