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How Spain is trying to save its tourism industry
Russians and other international travelers are responding to Spain's tourism facelift, and could lift it out of trouble
“I saw a great sign outside a Spanish bar,” says Alex Bramwell, a resident of Las Palmas, Spain. “It said, ‘Customers needed. No experience necessary.'”
That is, for many, a joke that gets rather too close to the truth for comfort. The tourism industry has not been sheltered from Spain's economic meltdown over the last few years.
But there are signs that the country is trying once again to become a top fixture in vacationer destinations.
Tour guide Marta Laurent Veciana's biggest concern these days is that she has too many tour groups to oversee.
“A few years ago there were very few tour guides in Barcelona that focused exclusively on private tours,” she says.
“Most guides depended on tour agencies, but in these last couple of years, there has been an increase in private tours, and more and more of the guides are setting up their own websites to attract customers.”
At the end of one of her tours she’s rewarded with applause and gratitude and, with only minutes to spare, rushes off to meet her next clients.
“Tourism in Spain is increasing, so I’ve taken an online business course and have upped my rates accordingly,” she says.
“Because of that, the guides that rely only on big agency groups aren’t working nearly as much as they did some years ago.”
Creativity key when dealing with new markets
According to the United Nations World Tourism Organization (UNWTO), there were 56.7 million international visitors to Spain in 2011.
Although notably less than the 59.2 million tourists that visited in 2007 (the year before the economic crisis began), this was an increase of 7.6 percent over the previous year, making Spain the world's fourth most-visited country.
In larger cities like Madrid and Barcelona, tourist-friendly businesses are incorporating multi-lingual options onto their websites and menus, as well as adapting opening hours to tourists' schedules.
Israel Romero, marketing director for Brand Asset Group (a full-service brand consulting firm), works with local and international companies to improve their presence in Spain.
“We have had to convince our clients to train staff that understands both their [international visitors'] language and cultural needs, in order to increase sales,” he says.
U.S.expat Lauren Aloise runs Madrid Food Tour, a fledgling niche tour company, which she promotes diligently on all of the major social media channels.
At the end of her tours, Aloise also finds it helpful to give out copies of her business card plus a simple request; leave the card behind with a good word about the tour.
“Through this method, I’ve received quite a bit of business this year,” she says.
This, along with a desire to offer her clients an “authentic” experience, has given her a positive response from local suppliers.
“The bars and restaurants we work with are really thankful for the business we bring in, perhaps more so due to the recession.”
Some regions slower to change
Meanwhile, on the resort island of Las Palmas in the Canary Islands, Bramwell, a photographer and content writer for local tourist-related businesses, relates a different scenario.
“I believe that the main problem in our resorts is that there were simply too many bars, shops and restaurants built during the boom,” he says.
He’s referring to the real estate bubble that saw a 200 percent increase (according to the Spanish Ministry of Housing) in property sales between 1996 and 2007 before finally bursting in the latter part of 2007.
“Most commercial venues are never full and struggle to make money,” he says.
Similar trends affect the region of Andalucía, where local traditions are still strongly adhered to.
Menus available only in Spanish, stores closing in the middle of the afternoon in observation of “siesta” time and meager early evening dining options are but a few of the challenges faced by visitors.
However, efforts to change are being made by some service providers.
Culinary tour operator, A Taste of Spain, sells bi-lingual tour packages that lure travelers with creative experiences, such as a popular Ibérico Ham Tour.
“Our Ibérico Ham Tour gives our customers the opportunity to experience not only a tasting, but also to see how the pigs roam free in their forest habitat,” says co-owner Miguel Ullibarri.
Emerging traveler markets help growth
As well as its fourth place world destination ranking, Spain has been the highest European earner, in terms of incoming tourist dollars, for two years running.
The UNWTO reports that in 2010, tourism in Spain brought in US$52.5 million and steadily increased to US$59.9 million by the end of 2011.
With the ongoing financial crisis, cautious Europeans have been opting to travel closer to home -- albeit for shorter stays.
The shift has paved the way for emerging economies, particularly the BRIC countries (Brazil, Russia, India, China), to raise their international travel rankings.
In Spain, this new trend can be observed in the area of accommodations -- one of the bigger expenditures associated with international travel.
Richard Brekelmans, general manager for the five-star W Hotel in Barcelona, has a firsthand view of the situation.
“This year especially, we have seen a clear shift in markets. As a result of the difficult economic environment, the domestic Spanish market has shrunk considerably,” he says.
“However, this has been more than balanced by the strong performance of the United States and the Middle East, as well as the BRIC countries, all four of which performed exceptionally well.”
For both European and international visitors to Spain, short-stay apartment rental companies that provide a user-friendly online booking system have not only proven to be convenient but cost efficient and flexible.
Barcelona-based Paul Anderson, marketing director for the European holiday-rental company Go with Oh, confirms a sharp increase in Spanish apartment rentals this year.
“The number of Russian clients is soaring,” says Anderson. “So much so that we’re in a rush to translate all our websites into Russian.”
In relation to property sales and relocation services, savvy companies have managed to create opportunities for themselves while buyers wait for the inevitable drop in housing prices.
“The current housing situation is good from our point of view, as it encourages more buy-to-let investors to purchase discounted properties in popular holiday resorts,” says Ben Walker, a real estate consultant at Property in Spain.
“We now have more Russian interest as well as an increased interest in certain areas from Scandinavian and Dutch buyers,” he says.
Lisa Sadleir, owner of the Costa del Sol-based expat relocation service, How to in Spain, agrees that there's a plus side.
“My business has in some ways benefitted from the current crisis, as the expats who are already living in this area are looking for ways of saving money and my services allow them to do that,” she says.
And who are the new consumers on the scene?
“Our local Spanish-language newspaper, Mijas Semanal, features six pages in English and now has a Russian page too," says Sadleir. "That must tell us something.”
Despite the changes and, in many cases, struggles, tourism-related companies are generally confident that they'll survive the worst of the crisis.
Economics aside, Spain is still the stunning, varied destination it always has been -- improving visitor numbers bear witness to this fact.