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Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 16 December 2018

Despite troubles, Spain's tourism industry shows strength

United Nations world tourism organisation, which has its headquarters in the Spanish capital Madrid, says negative effect minimal

A group of tourists takes pictures during a visit in the Old Town of Valencia, Spain. The tourism industry is proving resilient. Heino Kalis/Reuters
A group of tourists takes pictures during a visit in the Old Town of Valencia, Spain. The tourism industry is proving resilient. Heino Kalis/Reuters

As the world’s third-most visited country, behind only France and the United States, Spain relies heavily on the benefits tourism brings to its economy.

The sector accounts for 11 per cent of GDP, around one job in eight if indirect employment is included and a record spend of €77 billion (Dh332.26bn) in 2016.

It would seem logical to fear that political instability in Catalonia, closely following the terrorist attack in the heart of Barcelona in August, claiming 14 lives, would deter visitors from abroad and other parts of Spain.

But the United Nations world tourism organisation (UNWTO), which has its headquarters in the Spanish capital Madrid, has figures that confound such expectations.

Despite hints of a possible slowdown, this seems likely to be relatively minor, leading the tourism sector as a resilient winner in the Spanish economy.

After four consecutive record years for attracting visitors, Spain entered the final quarter of this year on course for another. And in terms of what visitors spend, the country holds second place, with only the US ahead.

John Kester, UNWTO’s director of statistics and trends, says that if the trend to the end if September is maintained, 2017 visitor numbers will end 10.5 per cent up on last year, when there was a new high of 75.3m international arrivals. “Even a small dip that left the increase at say, 9 per cent, would be a remarkable achievement,” he tells The National.

Spain’s success as a sought-after holiday destination again demonstrates the need to avoid exaggerating the deterrent impact of political unrest and terrorism.

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While major or repeated attacks have had at least a short-term effect, holidaymakers have a habit of adopting a philosophical response to such events, not least because they accept that few parts of the world can be seen as entirely free from risk.

“From what we have seen, Barcelona hasn’t done tremendously well but, of course, people who choose not to go there can still go to Granada, Madrid, Malaga, Seville and the Canaries,” says Mr Kester.

Arguably a greater threat to Spanish tourism comes from the recovery of the Tunisian, Turkish and, to a lesser extent, Egyptian markets as those countries recover from security and stability problems of their own. There are preliminary signs that 2018 may prove a tougher year.

“Spain and Portugal both benefited when people stayed away from Tunisia, Turkey and Egypt,” Sean Tipton, spokesman for the Association of British Travels Agents (ABTA), tells The National. “There are signs it is now working the other way round.”

On the evidence of early bookings for 2018, ABTA says visits made with its members are about 5 per cent down year or year, although Mr Tipton cautions that could change in the new year.

He also doubts whether political uncertainties in Catalonia will cause significant damage because, apart from the possibility of being caught up in protests, visitors are largely unaffected by such events.

It is possible that Spanish tourism will simply be unable to sustain the startling levels of growth seen in previous years, although UNWTO sees no immediate sign of this happening on a major scale.

Mr Tipton says the industry should observe one golden rule: not to make the mistake of out-pricing itself just because the trend of recent years has been strong.