Recession-hit Spain turns to top chef for help

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The Independent Online

Spain has called in its world-renowned chef Ferran Adria to help spice up its image as a tourist destination, in what analysts say is a shrewd move to revive a key, recession-hit industry.

Adria, the Spanish guru of avant-garde cuisine, is the face of a new campaign to promote Spain's cultural and gastronomic strengths, and prove it has more to offer than cheap "holiday in the sun" packages.

"It's a clever move in the sense that we need to innovate in the design of our tourism product, and Ferran Adria is seen as an innovator," Daniela Freund, a professor of tourism studies at Barcelona's Sant Ignasi college, told AFP.

Adria recently announced that his restaurant in northeastern Spain, elBulli, frequently named the world's best, would close for two years from 2012 and then become a non-profit foundation.

Spain last year suffered an 8.7-percent-drop in foreign tourists due in part to the effect of the economic crisis in its main markets, its second straight year of falling visitor numbers.

The tourism sector employed 2.25 million people last year, or 12 percent of all workers in the country, according to the industry ministry.

It also accounts for 11 percent of gross domestic product and is the second largest sector after the construction industry, which collapsed as the country slipped into recession in late 2008.

"Spain will end 2010 ... as the only major economy still in recession and with its two main engines - construction and tourism - sick," said the newspaper El Pais. The new tourist industry campaign is a way to "exit the tunnel", it added.

Freund said there had been "a feeling in the industry that the country was not being marketed properly and there was not enough commitment to try to foster other types of tourism."

"Probably the economic crisis was the spark that woke us up, (there was a feeling that) it was now or never."

Apart from the recession, Spain is feeling the pinch from the drop in the pound sterling to near parity with the euro which has made it more expensive for British holidaymakers to spend time at the resorts that dot its extensive coastline.

The country has also suffered from increased competition in recent years from cheaper Mediterranean destinations such as Croatia, Turkey and Tunisia.

In 2008, Spain lost its ranking as the world's second most visited country to the United States, behind first-placed France.

But analysts said tourism authorities are not concerned about attracting more tourists, just ones that spend more money.

"We are not looking for millions and millions of tourists," said Josep Francesc Valls, professor of marketing at the ESADE Business School in Barcelona.

"We want millions and millions of tourists, but we want tourists who are looking for quality."

Freund added that Spain "will never be able to compete on prices."

"If we just focus on this sun and beach model, then the tourist doesn't care where he is, and there's not much you can do about that."

The tourism ministry said the new "I Need Spain" campaign aims to "promote Spain as cultural tourist destination of the first order and diversify" its tourism product.

Among the attractions it wants to highlight are the historic Moorish cities of Cordoba, Grenada and Sevilla in the south, the wine-growing region of La Rioja in the northeast, and the northern Basque Country, home to some of Spain's best cuisine.

The ministry said the 7.5-million-euro (10.2-million-dollar) campaign was particularly aimed at markets that have traditionally been weak, such as China, India and the Middle East.

"We have to start at least building brand awareness" in these new markets "before it's too late," said Freund.

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