Portugal tourist arrivals hit sixth straight record in 2016

LISBON, Feb 15 (Reuters) - The number of foreign tourists visiting Portugal soared nearly 13 percent last year to exceed 10 million for the first time, helping the recovery of a still fragile economy as the country enjoyed a sixth straight record year for tourist arrivals.

Tourist arrivals and all travel-related revenues account for about 10 percent of Portugal’s gross domestic product. The tourism sector is also a key source of employment.

Preliminary data from the National Statistics Institute (INE) on Wednesday showed that almost 11 million foreign residents stayed in Portuguese hotels last year after 9.7 million in 2015.

That helped drive total hotel revenues in the Atlantic coast country, including domestic tourism, 17 percent higher to 2.9 billion euros ($3.07 billion).

Tourism has been growing since 2011, helping the heavily-indebted country overcome its economic and debt crisis.

In 2014, Portugal came out of its worst recession in decades and last year the economy grew a stronger-than-expected 1.4 percent, which put it on a firmer footing for 2017 as the government bets on a recovery to trim the budget deficit.

With the economy expanding and consumer confidence at its highest level since 2000, INE said the number of local travellers also rose, by six percent to just over seven million.

As for foreigners, British tourists comprised the largest group of visitors, followed by Germany and neighbouring Spain.

Aside from its sandy beaches, medieval castles, golfing, wine and gastronomy, Portugal lures tourists with some of the lowest prices in western Europe.

Portugal also promotes itself as one of the world’s safest destinations amid security concerns in Turkey, north Africa and even France.

Portugal has opened nearly 100 hotels in the past two years - most of them four- and five-star establishments. Another 46 hotels are due to open this year and 14 are scheduled to reopen after renovation, according to the Portuguese Hotel Association.

Private entrepreneurs have also redeveloped hundreds of apartment buildings in old parts of Lisbon and other areas of Portugal to rent to tourists, helping the country’s flagging construction sector, which this year finally expects to see a turnaround after a 15-year slump.

$1 = 0.9460 euros Reporting by Andrei Khalip; editing by Ken Ferris