Around the World: Portugal Appeals to Conservation-Minded Tourists
Ongoing Portuguese environmental preservatiom projects that give tourists opportunities to sustain nature while enjoying it are prime examples of how conservation can support and sustain local economies.
Topping the list is Portugal’s Alentejo region, famous for its cork forests-yes, cork, that spongy natural product that‘s environmentally friendly, renewable, recyclable, biodegradable and conveniently accessible for use in capping the bottles filled at local wineries. wine bottles of the stuff that’s used to cap wine bottles..
The Alentejo region has the largest cork forests in the world, with enough trees serve human cork needs for more than100 years and--under the current reforestation program—they are growing in size by about four percent per annum. The forests now produce more than half the world's total cork supply, and the cork industry employs some 15,000 workers in the region.
The forests also feature a unique ecosystem, an environment that is home to a wide variety of protected species of plants, birds and animals, including the rare and remarkable Iberian Lynx.
Cork forests are a great destination for bird watchers. According to The Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, the cork forests sustain some 42 bird species, including the endangered Spanish imperial eagle (the global population is down to 130 pairs), and the very rare black vulture and black stork. Smaller birds, including robins, finches and song thrushes, migrate to the Iberian Peninsula's cork forests from northern Europe, along with blackcaps that come from the United Kingdom.
In spring and summer, the cork forests are home to a large variety of butterflies and plants, with more than 60 plant species recorded in just one square meter. One particular tree, fondly referred to as the "Whistler Tree" because of the many singing birds attracted to it, is said to be 212 years old. This famous tree is thought to have produced more than 1-million corks.
Cork is produced by the cork oak (Quercus Suber, or Sobreiro in Portuguese). The tree must be at least 25 years old before it can be harvested, and trees can live up to 200 years. To harvest cork, the tree’s outer bark is stripped once every nine years. The tree’s inner bark, always left intact, protects the tree. Harvested bark is boiled and purified. There are guides who explain the process. Going on an ecotrek through a cork forest is a real treat, especially if you end up popping a cork on a bottle of local wine..
If you’re fascinated by ancient history, Foz Coa, a remote and wild mountainous area in the country’s northeastern sector, is the place to go.
Several decades ago, the government tactually halted construction of a huge dam intended to generate hydroelectric power and create a recreational lake because it would obliterate a huge cache of beautiful and culturally significant cave paintings that had been discovered during the construction process.
The government’s decision to halt construction of the dam was made at the behest of archeologists. From the economic standpoint, it was a difficult decision to make, but ultimately the government felt that preserving such an important archeological find was simply much more important than creating an artificial recreational lake. As a result, Portugal now claims a marvelous heritage park, one that has been designated a UNESCO World Heritage site.
To get to the remote park requires a long and difficult drive. But it’s one that a steady stream of tourists find to be well worth their time and effort. Visitors flock to see the exquisite and well-preserved cave paintings that are clearly dated by their subject matter. The mountain goats, horses, aurochs (wild bulls) and deer shown are species typical of the large herbivores that were part of the region’s ecosystem during the Upper Paleolithic Age. There are also engravings of fish among the collection, along with one image of a human form.
The paintings are actually engravings. Using quartz or flint, the artists of antiquity scratched images into the caves’ rock walls using straight lines or zigzags.
At the center of the scenic heritage park, Quinta da Ervamoira Museum provides fascinating interpretations of the paintings, as well as offering interpretations of the region’s history, culture and customs, including local winemaking.
Additionally, delightful inns and restaurants built on the park’s perimeter have created sustainable employment in the area--just as the lake would have done. So, establishment of the park and its infrastructure represents a win-win situation for today’s citizens and tourists, and for those who will continue to marvel at the cave paintings and the beauty of the surroundings for years to come.
In another conservation-minded decision, a well-established but unsightly resort on the Troia Peninsula on the northern tip of the Alentejo region (some 30 miles south of Lisbon) was razed and removed to make way for a new eco-friendly resort that would restore and respect the natural environment.
Troia Peninsula is a narrow sand strip that boasts about 12 miles of terrific beaches and arguably the cleanest water in the region, as well as remarkable Roman ruins. The area is favored by tourists who love water sports of all sorts, and by golfers. And by history buffs.
Construction of the Troia Resort involved demolition of outdated high-rises and the construction of a low-rise eco-tourism complex that both complements the landscape and preserves the natural environment. Since the initial construction decades ago, several modern highrise hotels and apartment complexes have been added, but the basic plan to rehabilitate the surrounding lands has been maintained.
The Troia Resort hotels are five- and four-star. The marina is modern and beautifully maintained. There’s a casino, conference center, beach club, country club, tennis center, equestrian center and other amenities. But, to assure that the facilities would incorporate the latest green technology, the resort was assessed with environmental impact studies during the planning phases, and there is ongoing monitoring of the facilities.
These three Portuguese eco-tourist destinations are proof positive that you can find wonderful vacation places where exploring new and distinctive environments and cultures yield all the adventures and thrills of travel, plus a sense that you’re preserving the planet and supporting sustainable development. Knowing that you’re doing the right thing always adds to the pleasure of any trip.
For more information about these destinations and travel to Portugal, visit the Portuguese Tourist Board’s Website at www.visitportugal.com.