Despite economy, Spanish tourism prospers

MADRID -- Spanish tourism grew 10-percent in 2011, due to consumer confidence, innovation and the Arab Spring, and the future looks bright.

MADRID--Over 200,000 people visited the annual International Tourism and Trade Fair in Madrid last week and it was no surprise. Crisis or not, Spanish tourism is up and up.

Despite the eurozone crisis mixing with Spain's flailing economy and about 23-percent unemployment, 2011 was Spain's fourth most successful year of tourism. España welcomed 56.9 million foreign tourists last year, an 8.1 percent increase over 2010. Not surprisingly, since you can't go near Marbella and other Spanish coastal towns without hearing much more English and German than Spanish, Great Britain and Germany made up the largest increase, rising 9- and 3-percent respectively.

Spain has always been a heavy tourism draw as the world's fourth most visited country--after France, the United States and China--so these numbers are not entirely surprising. Particularly for the English, of which an estimated 750,000 live in Spain (less than 300,000 of which are actually registered as residents,) it is obvious why Spain is such a draw. The Iberian peninsula, with its beautiful beaches, warmer and dryer weather, and much cheaper cost of living and touring, has been a destination for Western Europeans and the rest of the world for decades. However, Spain saw a particular boost last year.

The Arab Spring is a major cause. Both Spain and Turkey, which broke tourism records last year, saw double-digit growth, while tourists turned away from traveling to Northern Africa for the moment, particularly tourism hot spots Egypt, Morocco and Tunisia. While the World Tourism Organization's head Taleb Rifai has gone out of his way to downplay this cause and effect, saying that the Spanish tourism growth was more due to innovation, the Arab Spring is a clear variable.

The Spanish hotel industry grew over ten-percent in 2011. This is great news to the stagnate construction-based economy. It is a promising sign for the EU as a whole and Spain in particular, since evidently consumers are feeling more confident and are spending money on non-necessities again.

Just last week, Pegasus Solutions, which provides the technology behind many hotel chains, released the data that the hotel growth was both in leisure and business bookings. It identified that travelers seemed to be booking their Spanish holidays further in advance, showing even more consumer confidence.

Spanish-owned hotel chains Meliá Hotels International, NH Hoteles and Barceló Hotels & Resorts also announced simultaneously at FITUR that they are looking to expand worldwide, particularly in Latin America. Meliá's CEO Gabriel Escarrer said, “We think there will be a very positive evolution in the Caribbean and in Latin America, and our vacation properties continue to do well in Spain, partly due to North Africa and the Middle East.” His chain is investigating 240 possible new investments.

When SmartPlanet sat down with Marina d'Or at FITUR to see what what perspective this Valencian "City of Vacations" has, it was all about investing in green energies, which most other businesses are putting on the back-burner during the crisis. They are converting their hotels to electric energy with all L.E.D. lighting. This slower-return investment shows they are confident that rooms will be booked.

The vision of Spanish tourism in 2012 looks promising, but is still uncertain. Spain is the host to FITUR--one of the world's largest tourism fairs--because it is a clear "success story." The new Rajoy government , in its many predicted recortes, or budget cutbacks, is hoping to pass over the tourism line right now, as it is one of the rare Spanish industries that sees economic growth and job creation. Newly-appointed minister of tourism José Manuel Soria said that "There shouldn't be any cuts" in his industry because "Spanish tourism moves in the right direction."

Madrid is close to signing an agreement to build the world's next Las Vegas , which is said to create about 50,000 jobs. Madrid is again a top contender for the Olympics, this time for 2020.

However, widespread strikes in Iberia airlines and last Friday's closing down of SpanAir due to lack of funds, along with Spain's increasing unemployment, leaves the future a little shaky. It also sees increasing competition from even less expensive, new tourist destinations around the eastern Mediterranean, as well as the growing tourism industries of developing nations.

Tourism, which accounts for about 10-percent of the Spanish GDP, is one of the only bright spots in the dim economy. As it appears Spain is heading into another recession, tourism may be its best hope.

SmartPlanet witnessed FITUR's crowds this January meandering through the amusement park of displays trying to lure both investors and tourists to take a chance on what the 17 regions of Spain and the rest of the world have to offer. Patrons were lining up for 20 minutes for a free tapa or a glass of complimentary Spanish wine. Some families even were seen pulling suitcases full of tchotchkes. Each region featured its own ethnic costume and live music.

Andulusia was certainly the belle of the ball with an entire building dedicated to the viaje favorite, filled with classical guitar, olive appetizers and flamenco dancers. As most displays at FITUR were simply large decorated structures and costumed staff with fliers, Andulusia stood out with its high-tech, interactive displays, featuring plasma screens and Q-R codes all over the place.

The other highlight was the display by tiny Melilla--a Spanish enclave on the coast of Morocco--which built its own beach fit with surfer babes in the middle of the indoor fair. In fact, much of the fair was more like an escape than a typical trade show, with face painters, cotton candy, video games, balloons, free massages and music at each juncture. The Spain LGBT section even featured a huge rainbow dance floor, wine and a DJ playing electronic music found in most Spanish discotecas.

Spain isn't only Hemingway's image of long siestas and bullfights, but it is still the popular destination to relax.

Photo: Terra Noticias

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