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Eight decades of Pousadas de Portugal

Exterior e fachada da Pousada Amares.

First built in the 1940s of the last century, the Pousadas de Portugal network has been a major milestone in the country's tourist development. This is the story.

The Pousadas de Portugal network began to take shape in the mid-20th by the hand of António Ferro, director of the National Propaganda Service and and the person responsible for the Estado Novo’s cultural policy. By the end of the 1930s, Spain had started to invest in tourism, trying to create provision where it was lacking. Ferro wanted to follow suit. Mass tourism is a recent invention, supported by the development of transport and communication networks, which is why it took time some time to take off in Portugal.

The initial offering was modest and associated with thermal spa resorts in places like Luso, Monchique, Vidago, and Pedras Salgadas. Ferro wanted more, and above all, he wanted to promote tourism throughout the country, focussing on increasing both domestic and external demand, the latter derived from Portugal’s neutrality during World War II. By the end of the global conflict in Europe in May 1945, there were already open in remote locations, such as  Algarve interior (São Brás de Alportel) or the heart of the Marão mountain range (São Gonçalo). This initial phase included pousadas in Elvas (the very first to be built), Santo António de Serém, São Martinho, Santiago, and São Lourenço.

At that time, they were called “Pousadas Regionais” and aimed to offer guests “rustic comfort,” which meant hospitality that was in tune with local culture and gastronomy.

In the 1950s, the concept expanded with the “Pousadas Regionais” combining with the Pousadas Históricas, which were housed in classified monuments, many of which were in very poor repair. The first to open was the Pousada Castelo Óbidos, which was inaugurated in 1951. Palaces, monasteries, and other castles followed.  This new policy functioned as a kind of two-in-on, where historic heritage was restored and the surrounding regions developed.

For three decades, the Pousadas de Portugal were built by the state but operated by private bodies, following previously defined specifications. After the April 25th Revolution, the network was managed by the state controlled ENATUR (National Tourism Company) with many pousadas joining and leaving the portfolio in the following decades, which were periods of growth.

In the 1990s, new constructions were suspended to prioritize pousadas built in existing and classified heritage – such as Beja, Vila Viçosa, and Queluz – or those with an architectural style that was representative of a particular period, such as Viseu and Alfama, for example.

The network was extensive, and there were inconsistencies among the pousadas. As a result – some fell behind other, especially smaller ones – that were more challenging to operate. In 2003, the government decided to hand over management of Pousadas de Portugal to the private sector. Through a public tender, the concession passed into the hands of the Pestana Group, which implemented significant reforms to the network in the ensuing years.

Initially, there were considerable problems, such as, the limited size of the spaces in the original Pousadas de Portugal. In the words of António Ferro, “When a guest is known by their room number and not their name, that’s not the pousada spirir.” For this reason, in 2003, there were places with fewer than a dozen rooms. The Pestana Group sought to respect this philosophy but offset it by offering greater accommodations capacity in regions that previously lacked such provision – such as Estoi and Viseu.

Over the last 20 years, Pousadas de Portugal have reinvented themselves. With investment exceeding 100 million euros, the network has worked to adapt to the market, becoming more competitive – through the selection of strategic locations and the construction of pools, meeting rooms, and spas in existing units.

That said, the initial objective, which spans over eight decades, remains unchanged: to give guests a warmly Portuguese welcome, while showcasing the best that the country has to offer.