Welcome to Portugal, the new expat haven. Californians, please go home
Jamie Dixon landed in this hilly seaside town nine months ago, ditching her luxury trailer in Malibu for a two-floor rooftop apartment that's twice the size for a fraction of the rent.
Her escape from her native California came amid growing costs of living, encroaching wildfires and a waning sense of safety after the burglary of a neighbor's home. The fitness-trainer-turned-startup-worker decided it was time to reinvent herself in a foreign land, but like many American expats she didn't want to feel too far from home.
In this wealthy enclave about 15 miles from the Portuguese capital, Lisbon, she found her slice of California on the west coast of Europe: ocean breezes, mountain views, hot spring days on palm-tree-lined promenades, and the glow of sunsets that seep into the night.
"Things were just becoming too much back home, but I didn't want to leave everything about L.A. behind," said Dixon, 37. Dressed in yoga pants and cross-trainers, she sipped white wine at an organic cafe that overlooked waves crashing into Big Sur-like cliffs a short walk from the rental she shares with her actor husband and 7-year-old daughter.
"With Portugal," she said, "we could keep the parts we liked and leave the rest."
Dixon has plenty of company in a country that has become an international destination for tourism and residency alike.
This once seafaring empire known for Port wine and Fado music can feel a lot like California. Except it's much more affordable on a U.S. budget. That's one reason the slender nation on the Atlantic has attracted — and even advertised to — Americans who are packing up.
In the last decade, the overall population in Portugal has declined even as the number of foreigners has grown by 40%. The ranks of American citizens living in this land of 10 million shot up by 45% last year. Within the mix of retirees, digital nomads and young families fed up with issues including the costs of housing and healthcare, Trumpian politics and pandemic policies, Californians are making themselves known in a country once considered the forgotten sibling of Spain.
"I'd say 95% of my clients are now Americans," said André Fernandes, a 38-year-old Porto-based real estate broker who, upon seeing the surge in interest in his homeland, moved back from New Jersey three years ago and switched from installing fire sprinklers to selling housing. "In the last week, I've called or emailed with people from California, Arizona and New Mexico." One recent client, he said, was a Netflix writer.
Portugal emerged from the financial crisis of the mid-2000s as one of the European Union's poorest nations. With the economy in shambles, Lisbon lawmakers drafted immigration laws to aggressively court foreign professionals, from the wealthy, who could essentially buy residency by purchasing land, to remote workers, who could secure a path to citizenship by earning money abroad but spending it here. More recently, the nation, which for the last seven years has hosted the Web Summit tech conference, has fashioned itself as a tax haven for cryptocurrency investors.
The government estimates that foreigners have invested more than $6 billion in Portugal since 2012 through property purchases alone. The closely related tourist and rental industries brought in more than $10 billion last year and, before the pandemic, represented 15% of the nation's GDP. (During the same time in the U.S., tourism accounted for less than 3% of the economy.)
For Dixon, a fourth-generation Californian, the visa process was textbook. She and her husband, Joey Dixon, had to open a Portuguese bank account with savings equal to about $21,000 — about twice the minimum wage — and lock into a yearlong lease.
Joey Dixon, who has appeared in "Yellowstone" and "S.W.A.T.," is starting an acting school for other Hollywood transplants. His wife, who at first went through bouts of loneliness, now comes home to plastic containers of homemade soup at her door from the neighbor below, an older Portuguese woman, and has befriended a nearby couple and their child who moved from New York and started a relocation company.
A few blocks down the street, the Dixons have met a California couple — one of them works for Adobe — who recently made the move. A family from Seattle is expected to arrive this month and will occupy the first floor of the Dixons' three-story gated apartment building. Seeing an influx of Americans, their daughter's school recently hired an English teacher and now has bilingual instruction.
"My Portuguese is still bad," said Jamie Dixon, who has taken classes but uses her favorite phrase to describe her attitude toward the slow journey of integration: não faz mal ("no big deal"). She hopes to speak enough in five years to pass the citizenship test, which would gain the family European Union passports. With them comes the freedom to move and work throughout much of the continent.