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LISBON (Reuters) - A record 13,000 passengers disembarked on Tuesday in the port of Lisbon from the towering hulls of cruise ships, including Cunard Line's gigantic trio of "Queens" making a rare joint stopover in a nod to the destination's growing popularity.
Tourism has been an important element in helping Portugal's economy emerge last year from its worst recession since the 1970s, alleviating its high unemployment rate from record highs of over 16 percent by generating jobs in tourism centers like Lisbon, Porto and the southern region of Algarve.
Tourism-related revenues account for more than 10 percent of the country's gross domestic product that shrank in full-year 2013, but is expected to grow 1.2 percent this year, just as Portugal exits an international bailout.
The so-called Royal Rendezvous, including the Queen Mary 2 - the largest ocean liner ever built - the Queen Victoria and Queen Elizabeth, all cruise ships operated by Carnival Corp's Cunard, has only ever happened in New York and in their home port of Southampton.
"This encounter, the fact that Cunard has chosen Lisbon to promote itself, is a big honor and an acknowledgement of Lisbon as a major tourism destination whose appeal keeps increasing," said Andreia Ventura, a Port of Lisbon board member.
Aside from the tourists, the liners and another three cruise ships moored in the Tagus estuary port beneath the hilly landscape of the elegant, luminous city carry a small army of 5,000 crew, many of whom also disembarked in Lisbon.
Authorities estimate the visitors would spend at least 1.4 million euros ($1.94 million) in one day - a welcome boost to local trade.
Ventura added that the port and cruise line operators hope that a new passenger terminal to be built by 2016 would make Lisbon even more attractive by removing the cap on simultaneous boarding and disembarkation for travelers with luggage.
Tourism in Portugal, which boasts Atlantic beaches, historic sights and premium golf courses, has received a boost in the last few years partly due to turmoil in some popular holiday destinations, such as Egypt and Tunisia. But competitive prices for travel, food and hotels as well as rave reviews in the media and travel websites also provided a boost for the Portuguese capital.
Lisbon has been named Europe's Leading City Break Destination according to the latest World Travel Awards, while Urban City Guides puts Lisbon as the fourth most beautiful city in the world after Venice, Paris and Prague. Portugal is also No. 6 on its list of the most beautiful countries.
A record 8.3 million foreign visitors stayed in Portuguese hotels last year and the numbers have been rising so far in 2014.
Reporting by Andrei Khalip; editing by Axel Bugge, Michael Roddy and G Crosse