The nation's international outlook dates back more than 500 years to the days of great explorers and seafarers As a member of the European Union (EU), Portugal is perceived as a rapidly developing market, and after a presence in Asia of more than 500 years, the country still retains strong ties in the region. Manuel Geraldes, Portuguese trade commissioner for Hong Kong and former Portuguese colony Macau, said Portugal was not a large country but it had a global perspective as a result of its far-reaching explorations and a long history of international involvement. The country's international outlook can be traced back to the 15th century, when Portuguese explorers such as Vasco da Gama put to sea in search of a passage to India. By the 16th century, they had helped to build a huge empire that embraced Brazil and vast tracts of Africa and Asia. Mr Geraldes said the enclave of Macau, which was first visited by Portuguese traders in 1517, provided a platform for Portuguese companies seeking to establish a presence in the mainland while serving as a stepping stone for Chinese companies wishing to set up trade links with Portuguese-speaking nations. About 200 million people in the world speak Portuguese. Portugal maintains relationships with its former colonies. Many of the country's key distributors and firms have offices in African countries such as Angola, Mozambique and Cape Verde, or travel there regularly. China recently set up a forum to develop trade links with Portuguese-speaking countries. Ties between Portugal and China have become even warmer since two Chinese naval ships arrived in Lisbon harbour in 2002 - the first visit to Portugal by People's Liberation Army warships. Last year, Portuguese exports to China grew by 135 per cent over 2002 to nearly US$195 million, while imported goods from China grew by 35 per cent to $406 million. Products imported by the mainland include nuclear reactors, mechanical appliances, salt, lime and pharmaceutical products. Portuguese wines imported into Macau account for 66 per cent of the enclave's total wine imports. The top mainland goods exported to Portugal include audiovisual products, furniture, toys, leather goods, chemical products and clothing. Mr Geraldes said Portugal had become a diversified and increasingly service-based economy since joining the European Community in 1986. Over the past 18 years, successive governments have privatised many state-controlled firms and liberalised key areas of the economy. The country now boasts one of Europe's most cost-efficient workforces. In addition, it has one of the youngest populations in Europe. Productivity in industry and services is high as new technologies and management skills are introduced into the economy. Until recently, average annual growth rates consistently exceeded the EU average, and since joining the EU Portugal has made significant progress in raising its standard of living to that of its EU partners. However, Portugal's economy shrank by 1.5 per cent last year as consumer spending and business confidence declined. Analysts believe the economy has now hit rock bottom and will grow this year, thanks in part to Portugal's staging of the Euro 2004 Football tournament. Mr Geraldes said that Portugal had moved on from traditional industries such as textiles, footwear, ceramic, cork, naval repairs and food and beverages. Along with tourism, new sectors that are showing dynamic growth and playing an increasingly major role in the economy include telecommunications, vehicles and components, electronics and pharmaceuticals. Mr Geraldes said the Portuguese market for IT had also developed around the vehicle and telecommunications industries. Portugal is evolving as an attractive location for the manufacture of software and hardware. Several Portuguese software companies operate from Macau, and this sector looks set to grow. Portuguese construction, consulting, engineering, banks and insurance companies, telecommunications and information systems developers are also based in Macau. Mr Geraldes said that in two days Portugal would become the sporting centre of Europe when it hosts the Euro 2004 European soccer championship, the largest sports event after the Olympics and the football World Cup. 'We have been working for more than four years on this. We have taken measures in all areas,' Mr Geraldes said. 'We hope to promote the image of the country and not that of the event because football lovers already know the Euro 2004 will take place in Portugal.' Since tourism is one of the pillars of the nation's economic growth programmes, Lisbon plans to make the most of the intense media coverage that will be given to the event to promote the nation to a global television audience. Before each match of the finals, a short promotional spot showcasing the charms of the city will be aired in a bid to attract visitors to the country. Tourism accounts for 8 per cent of the country's gross domestic product. Ten per cent of all workers in Portugal are engaged in jobs relating to tourism. Portugal is the 16th most popular tourist destination in the world, according to the World Tourism Organisation. Last year, about 11.7 million tourists visited Portugal to enjoy its seaside resorts, medieval cities and golf courses.