Sam Ballard hears how Spain’s tourism industry is adapting as Brexit looms
To many people, Spanish holidays are as British as fish and chips. It’s one of the reasons why there are few countries that have as much skin in the game as Spain when it comes to Brexit.
And, given that the country is hosting this year’s ABTA Travel Convention, it’s a point that they are keen to remind the British travel industry about, too.
For Javier Piñanes, director of the Spanish Tourist Office, it is arguably the biggest issue he faces in a role that incorporates everything from dealing with ‘overtourism’ in the country’s major hubs and coastal areas to the resurgence of popular destinations in the Eastern Mediterranean.
“The comeback of countries such as Turkey and Tunisia could affect the trend of tourism in Spain,” Piñanes admits. “Some of the almost 19 million people from the UK that travelled to Spain last year were people whose first intention would have been to travel to Turkey but in the end came to Spain. However, we are not stressed about this. This summer the number of British tourists will slightly decrease, but we cannot sustain the increases we’ve seen over the past few years.”
Those increases have indeed been massive. The number of Brits travelling to Spain was 17.8 million in 2016, rising to 18.7 million in 2017. That’s all the more impressive given that Spain’s recent history has been turbulent. Terrorist attacks, a vitriolic independence campaign in Catalonia and a change in government after a vote of no confidence in former prime minister Mariano Rajoy have all made headlines around the world. Despite all of that, Spain received 82 million tourists in 2017, according to Reuters. When you dive deeper into the statistics for British tourists they tell an interesting story about the trend of Britons travelling in Spain.
“Our strategy is to focus on a group of tourists we have labelled as ‘cosmopolitan’,” Piñanes explains. “We define them as those people who are focused on cities, culture and gastronomy. They enjoy learning more about the lives of local communities. This group of influential tourists sets the trend for everyone else travelling to Spain.”
Our strategy is to focus on a group of tourists we have labelled as ‘cosmopolitan’
The strategy is working. According to a study that the Spanish Tourist Office commissioned, which looked at booked packages, the number of cosmopolitan tourists increased from 22 per cent of the overall pie in 2016 to 30 per cent in 2017. Even more interesting is the fact that the average amount a tourist spends per day has increased from €120 a few years ago to €130 a day now. It is this high-spending cosmopolitan group that the Spanish Tourist Office director and his bosses in the Spanish government want to focus on.
“I would like to make it clear that those tourists who are looking for beach and sun are still massive for us,” says Piñanes. “They represent the majority of our market and we won’t forget this, but we’ll also be looking at growth among the cosmopolitan tourists.”
The strategy ties in to wider ideas that the Spanish government has about fighting problems around overtourism, which Piñanes concedes is an issue in some destinations.
“We are conscious that in certain places there are problems,” he adds, citing Barcelona, Palma de Mallorca and Valencia as examples. That “congestion” has led to the closure of 2,000 illegal apartments in cities such as Barcelona in the last year alone. It has also meant that the city has worked more closely with the wider province and coastal areas to improve the spread of tourists flocking to the city. In the Balearics, work has been done to extend the summer season and reduce the number of tourists visiting in peak months.
The issue of Brits flocking to the same destinations year after year – and because Piñanes is trying to hone in on cosmopolitan tourists – is another reason why the Spanish Tourist Office wanted to host this year’s ABTA Travel Convention in the Andalusian city of Seville, which was ranked by Lonely Planet as the number one city in its 2018 list.
“This is the moment to push our other destinations,” he adds. “Seville is well known, but not as well known as we might think. We thought that we should make an additional effort to push Seville and put it on the map with all of the British tour operators. It’s a fantastic opportunity.
This is the moment to push our other destinations
“For us it’s very important, especially given Brexit. Our message to British tourists is that you are going to continue to be welcomed in Spain. We are very honoured to have the ABTA Travel Convention in Spain. It’s to give continuity to the good relationship we have had with the sector. ABTA for us is key.”
As many industry analysts have commented, Spain is having a moment right now. So, given that tourism represents about 12 per cent of Spain’s economy, how worried is Piñanes about Brexit?
“We are concerned about Brexit,” he admits, “but at the end of the day we have common interests.” Piñanes identifies “three main problems” arising from Britain’s exit from the European Union: visas, the health insurance card and regulations concerning air space. “Open skies is the main problem and the one to solve now,” he says.
“I know that ABTA is pressing the government, the destinations are worried and so is business. It could be the biggest issue to affect tourism.”
Whatever the future may hold for Spanish tourism, it appears that companies and government bodies on both sides are keen for nothing to get in the way of British tourists being able to continue to travel unimpeded to Spain. Only time will tell if they get their way.