Why you should care
This young, right-wing politician is garnering support while attracting tourists to his crisis-hit nation.
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“A free spirit.” That’s what people call Adolfo Mesquita Nunes.
For starters, this short, strong-minded 37-year-old doesn’t exactly dress like the conservative politician of the mind’s eye. Sitting on the terrace of a fancy bar overlooking Lisbon, wearing Ray-Ban sunglasses and bright yellow suspenders, he looks more like a rogue financial trader.
He exudes self-assurance — maybe too much — and doesn’t care for formalities. He starts our interview by showering me with questions about my stay in Portugal, but eventually I turn the tables: “How does it feel to be responsible for an industry that generates a tenth of Portugal’s GDP?”
Mesquita is the country’s eccentric secretary of state for tourism, and his unique style and apparent success are making him a political darling among the right-wing ranks of the People’s Party (CDS-PP), part of Portugal’s ruling coalition. He’s also an enfant terrible: a supporter of not just economic liberty, but social liberty, including gay rights and abortion rights.
He exudes self-assurance — maybe too much — and doesn’t care for formalities.
“Freedom is the most important political value for me. It comes before anything else,” he says. “So when somebody comes to me, my first question is never, ‘How can I help?’ but ‘What can I do to let the market do what it wants?’”
Since Mesquita got the job nearly two years ago, Portugal’s tourism industry has taken off, though it’s hard to say how much is his doing. Last year, tourist arrivals hit a record — over 14 million, more than Portugal’s 10 million people — and the first half of 2014 is up 12 percent over 2013. In this economically depressed country with 15.2 percent unemployment, tourism generated 20 percent of new jobs last year.
Why do they come? Cheap prices and sunshine, of course. But this young politician, single, childless and with his own serious travel bug, has aimed to expand his country’s appeal beyond sun-and-sea destinations like the Algarve. More visitors are coming to Lisbon and the northern city of Porto for food and culture.
He’s cut red tape, reduced taxes and made it easier to set up businesses.
He dropped almost all traditional tourism campaigns, such as expensive institutional ads on public transport, sponsored sports events and TV commercials. Instead, he’s gone for online advertisements, social media presence and intense media PR campaigns that helped land Portugal on the cover of National Geographic’s Traveler magazine. This, of course, is less a reflection of political philosophy than a recognition that times have changed.
“Politicians like to show people what we are doing. This is much more invisible work, but I’m confident I don’t need to promote my job, I need to promote my country,” says Mesquita. “My goal is to depoliticize and privatize tourism.”
With the tourists come foreign tour operators and investors. In the country’s capital, a new port is going in to accommodate the growing number of cruise ships, while in Porto, low-cost airlines like easyJet have begun to take off.
He’s also cut red tape, reduced taxes and made it easier to set up businesses such as walking tours and food stands. Before, these companies needed to have several types of insurance and costly licenses. Now operating fees are down by 80 percent and the process requires just a single form sent to the Tourism Office for a registry number. Tour guides no longer need certification.
“Often, whatever you let the state rule, the state will ruin,” says Mesquita, “so instead of doing a plan to ‘promote’ those businesses, we got out of their way and now there are twice as many as there were a couple years ago.” Indeed, young tourist guides and “tuk-tuks” — rickshaw-style tourist rides — have taken over the city center in the last year.
Mesquita traces his “love of freedom” back 20 years to his grandfather’s library, in the small city of Covilhã, where he grew up.
His libertarian ideas landed him both praise and criticism.
Browsing through the shelves at age 14, a title caught his eye: Free to Choose by Milton and Rose Friedman, in which the couple argue that capitalism and the free market are the solution to all economic problems. “I got it. It all made so much sense to me after reading it,” he recalls. “Ever since, I’ve been wanting to fight for my freedom to do what I want and let others to do the same.”
At age 16, he became an activist of the People’s Party and then studied law and earned a master’s degree focusing on the legal interactions between government and private companies.
He never considered making politics his full-time job and doesn’t think he’ll stay in it forever, but when asked to run for congress in 2011, he accepted, saying, “For years I had been saying, ‘If I was in politics I would do this or that,’ so it was the most coherent thing to do.”
In junior government positions, his libertarian ideas landed him both praise and criticism. He was the only member of his party to vote in favor of the right to adoption for same-sex couples in 2012.
“His honesty and straightforwardness have made him very popular, but there’s obviously a conservative wing who targets him for breaking ranks in votes,” says Michael Seufert, a fellow CDS-PP member of Parliament.
The uncontroversial character of the tourism industry has lately shielded Mesquita politically. But this could change if he wins re-election in 2015 and promotion to a more senior position.
“He’s young and very forward-looking. I think he will be a top political figure in People’s Party,” says Pedro Pereira Gonçalves, secretary of state for investment and a member of the Social Democratic Party.
Mesquita says he wants to try new things: “I’d be happy anywhere where reforms are needed.” He’d also entertain leaving politics for a while to gain private sector experience.
Portuguese voters might have trouble relating to Mesquita’s unorthodox views and unapologetic style. But sometimes results speak for themselves.