This Europe: Spain moves upmarket as demand for sun, sea and sangria slumps

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The Independent Online

Spain's tourist authorities, alarmed by this summer's slump in hotel bookings, are reshaping their biggest industry to boost cities, monuments and theme parks.

Spain's tourist authorities, alarmed by this summer's slump in hotel bookings, are reshaping their biggest industry to boost cities, monuments and theme parks.

The move makes sense. Even before the decline in popularity of beach resorts, cities such as Madrid and Barcelona were gaining ground as holiday spots. Only now have politicians realised the huge potential for cultural tourism.

The World Tourism Organisation reckons 37 per cent of world trips have a cultural motive. But only 10 per cent of foreign visitors to Spain come for culture, 70 per cent of them Europeans. Spain accounts for 35 per cent of Europe's beach holidays, but only 8 per cent of Europe's market for cultural visits, despite having some of the world's finest attractions.

"Spain has one of richest, most varied and distinctive historical-artistic patrimonies in the world," says Juan Jose Guemes, head of the Economy Ministry's department of tourism. "We have the world's biggest number of sites declared by Unesco to be Patrimony of Humanity. Plus we have a vibrant living culture: our language, our gastronomy, fiestas, cultural events, the dynamism of our cities all constitute a tourism resource with enormous potential."

Visitors have long been drawn to Spanish cities for their art collections and their lively buzz or marcha. But urban authorities have made huge efforts, and spent lavishly, to broaden their appeal by reconditioning crumbling, often magnificent, monuments and establishing a package of hotels, shops, restaurants and pedestrianised streets.

The change might be called the Guggenheim effect: the world gasped as Frank Gehry's sensational art gallery galvanised a rundown steel town and put Bilbao on the tourist map. Repeated less dramatically from Seville to Salamanca, the phenomenon taps into changes in European tourist habits that Spain has been slow to exploit.

People wanted shorter, more frequent holidays, the Tourism Department found in a survey prompting its drive to promote cities and culture. They demand higher standards, and they care about environmental protection. Those who prefer cathedrals to lilos tend to be well-educated [71 per cent have a university degree], mostly [52.8 per cent] couples under 50 and they spend €77.72 (£48) a day on average, double the outlay of frugal beach bums.

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