With a surface area of 91 906 square kilometres and a resident population of 10.3 million in 2001, Portugal comprises a part of continental Europe and the archipelagos of the Açores and Madeira.
In administrative terms, the country is subdivided into two autonomous regions - the Açores and Madeira - and 18 districts comprising 305 municipalities and 4 241 civil parishes. The NUTS (three at level 1, seven at level 2 and thirty at level 3), which are used as a reference for statistical data, do not correspond to the national administrative divisions. The municipality has traditionally been responsible for managing the municipal facilities and building the basic infrastructures. The current trend is towards extending their powers to include the promotion of development, and specifically the promotion of local economic activities and environmental protection.
The responsibilities and powers of the parish are restricted almost exclusively to day-to-day administration and the construction and maintenance of certain infrastructures. However, some municipalities have delegated wider powers to the parishes.
In Continental Portugal, each of the 18 administrative districts is still administered by a representative of the State, but this territorial unit will vanish with the establishment of administrative regions which, unlike the districts, will have a statute of local autonomy and will have powers to manage public services and to co-ordinate and support the work of the municipalities.
The two autonomous regions of the Açores and Madeira are quite distinct, in political and administrative terms, from the future administrative regions of continental Portugal, in that they own have legislative and executive powers, whereas the continental regions will only have administrative autonomy and regulatory powers in certain areas.
The population of Portugal is irregularly distributed over the country. A very large part of the population lives in the metropolitan areas of Lisboa and Porto, or at least in the coastal strip linking these two conurbation's along the main national lines of communication, the end points being the towns of Setúbal (in the south) and Braga (in the north). To this strip might be added the southern coast - the Algarve - which is also rather densely populated, at least as regards the coastal towns. In contrast to the coastal strip (which rarely exceeds 50 km in width), the population density in the interior of the country is relatively low. In some places most distant from the sea, and with more difficult communications, there is even a worrying process of (relative) depopulation. However, all the indications are that, over the last few years, most of the towns in the interior continued to grow, with the depopulation limited to the rural areas, although these losses were higher than the increase in the urban population. The population of the interior is part of the marked trend towards the increasing urbanisation of Portugal.
The differing demographic trends in the coastal areas and in the interior over the last few decades are a natural reflection of the imbalance in economic opportunities. In historical terms, however, the process was never as simple as a mere transfer of population from a backward interior to a developed coastal area. One of the main reasons for the decline in population in the interior was emigration, mainly to the rest of Europe, with the last great wave occurring in the 1960s and the early 1970s. On the other hand, the large-scale return of ex-colonists from Africa in the mid-1970s, together with the trend of emigrants returning from other European countries, largely favoured the coastal strip. At any rate, this complex pattern of migratory flows involving third countries and other continents affected the regions of Portugal to differing degrees, and all the indications are that the main reasons for this were mainly economic. The result is that the principal pockets of industrial activity and the major centres of the service industry are located in the coastal regions. Industry, particularly if export-oriented, is located in the Norte region, extending from the city of Porto northwards towards Braga and southwards to the area of Aveiro in the Centro region. Service industries are a marked feature of the economy in Lisboa region, while tourism is the principal economic activity in the Algarve and Madeira. The regions of Alentejo, Centro and the Açores, which are relatively more dependent on activities in the primary sector compared to national average, have the lowest per capita GDP of all the NUTS II regions in Portugal.
Text not validated by the National Statistical Institute of Portugal.