21st century development for Portugal’s Algarve

Copyright: David Lawson – appeared Property Week March 1998

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Andre Jordan is hundreds of miles from home but still finds it difficult to avoid people  who want  to talk about his work. Not that he wants to.  The whole point of a whirlwind visit to London was meeting investors and developers - plus a little house-hunting on the side. But he is just as happy listening to strangers at the hairdresser or dentist. 'I like meeting people who enjoy what I have done,' he says.

  This familiarity stems from two British passions: sun and golf. Jordan practically invented the Algarve in southern Portugal as  a tourist attraction.  More than 20 years ago he established Quinta do Lago  in the heart of a former swamp as a resort peppered with golf courses.

 Even if they don't play, the chances are that the barber or dentist has visited the Algarve - or knows someone who has retired there. 'It has become  almost an extension of the UK,' says Jordan.

  Now he is tapping into that link  for a massive project aimed at creating one of the largest resorts in Europe. Quinta do Lago was sold ten years ago  but Jordan has bought a chunk back and added ambitious plans for extending nearby Vilamoura into a 'leisure city'  which could double the population to  70,000.

 Leisure is flavour of the Nineties for investors, particularly growth sports like golf, where enthusiasts will travel half way around the world to try out a course. Add that to a renewed interest by US and Asian investors in Europe and Jordan appears to have got his timing right again.

  It is still early days, with 80m pounds worth of infrastructure still to go in, but he  sounding out US, UK and Dutch groups  about joint ventures. 'I have been talking to  hotel groups, holiday village operators, developers, agents and designers,' he says.

  UK fund managers will also be making their way to his Claridges suite, seeking briefings on the share prospects of Lusotur, the Lisbon-listed group taken over by Jordan to gain access to Vilamoura, its principal asset. He says  London is a good base  because every type of potential partner is represented here in including the Dutch and Americans.

 It is one reason  he has rented a home there for years - and is now looking for something to buy. Another is a long connection with UK investors. Shell and Bovis bought into his housing and leisure developments in the Seventies, and he was chairman of Bovis Abroad for a while.  When Jordan let go of his  flagship Quinta do Lago, it  went to to British property magnate David Thompson.

  Not that he wanted to sell. A coup cut short activity in 1975 and by the time he returned to control in 1982, debts had piled so high he had to sell assets. Once back on an even keel, he could think big again. Vilamoura could involve more the 800m pounds worth of housing, shopping, hotels and leisure activities on 900 hectares of reclaimed swamp.

   It will be a long haul, but Jordan is used to that. Many would have recoiled from the idea of  taking on  an area which is not only a national park but  on a coast  where local authorities are adamant about resisting the concrete tide which has swamped other parts of the Mediterranean. It has taken delicate negotiations with 16 government bodies just to get this far.

  Jordan puts such problems in perspective, however. 'I have lived through booms and slumps, coups and putsches, in Europe and South America. And I am still here,' he says.

The path was long and varied. He fled Poland as a child when war broke out and his family settled in Brazil. He was a journalist before entering property, first through the international property business inherited from his father in 1967 and then working in New York for Levitt, then the largest developer in the US.

 Moving back to consultancy in Paris, he discovered the Algarve. He saw the potential for moulding a wild coastline into a destination for tourists and homeowners appalled by the brashness of other Mediterranean resorts, and set out on what has now become his trademark - long and meticulous research into sustainable development with a succession of partners.

  Vilamoura is a return to that principle. It will be the first 'green city' in Europe, with detailed plans  for sustainable and eco-friendly development Lusotur has joined Green Globe, an international environment management programme created by the World Travel and Tourism Council at the 1992 Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro.

  This goes beyond the normal lip service some developers place on ecology as a fashionable aid to marketing. It ranges from a ban on plastic cups in the company kitchens through recycling waste to energy audits, environment checks on local hotels and even a report on progress in the information sent to the Lisbon Stock Exchange.

 This kind of paternalistic, long-term management is a benefit rather a cost,  says Jordan. It has ensured that Quinta do Lago prospered  over the years. This is reflected not just through  rising property values but the development of  a widely-based and thriving community, rather than some enclave of expensive homes shuttered away from the surrounding area and locked up in the off-season.

  Lusotur is betting that this will happen again. The company is not a conventional developer but a master-planner and manager, aiming to make its money from operating the  golf courses, leisure facilities and marina. 'That means we have to maintain interest from visitors to sustain  values,' says Jordan.

   So far it has concentrated on laying the foundations. The Old Course - familiar to two generations of golfers - has been regrassed and a new clubhouse built. The Laguna and Pinhal courses have also been revitalised - right down to details like computer-controlled irrigation and finer sand for the bunkers. The aim now is to attract a world-class tournament - which Jordan believes could happen this year. This will raise the profile not just among golfers but  with US investors.

  Another opportunity for upmarket buyers comes this year when work starts on Monte da Quinta, an exclusive  condominium and golf club, This is being built on  on the chunk of land bought back from Thompson at Quinta do Lago.

  The marina is also being eased onto the international scene, and returns will flow back as leases come up for renewal.

  Property owners seem convinced that the future looks bright. When Jordan  took over Vilamoura two years ago, there were 2,000 homes on the market. Some of the  courses had begun to look  threadbare, shops around the marina were drifting  downmarket into fast-food and knick-knacks and there were too many gaping holes filled with wooden scaffolding.

  By last summer, local agents ran out of property. Hotels and time-shares are now crowded and there is a smell of fresh paint everywhere. Admittedly, the overall market has recovered, but the underlying view is  that now Mr Algarve is back, so is the boom.