Why sun, sea and sand are no longer enough to sell Spain

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The Independent Online

Sun blazing from a cloudless sky; you, lazing for hours on dazzling beaches, squinting against the glinting waves, soaking up the rays, stirring only for a glass of cheap alcohol. That was the image that Spain's tourist industry offered for decades as the ingredients of perfect holiday.

"Everything under the sun" was the banner that drew millions of northern Europeans to Iberia's golden shores to get as bronzed as possible. It was a slogan that symbolised decades in which Spanish hoteliers and restaurateurs basked in double-digit growth rates, and every working Brit could aspire to a fortnight on one of the Costas.

But Spain's sun-and-sea formula has brought on a crashing headache. Other countries do it cheaper. And health fears now make the ubiquity and fierceness of Spanish sunshine a curse rather than a blessing. Spain's tourism bosses are scrambling for new ways to keep holidaymakers entertained in the shade, a director in the industry admitted this week in Madrid.

"The 'caress' of the sun we were so proud of has turned into the 'aggression' of the sun. We did everything we could to promote healthy exposure. But doctors now say safe sunbathing must be restricted to two hours a day," mourned Juan Andres Melian, director of the Tourism Council, a pressure group of Spanish hoteliers and tourism chiefs, who presented the group's annual report.

Implications for the Spanish tourism industry - built on the winning formula of sun, sand and sangria - are momentous in an increasingly cut-throat industry. It is being forced into a fundamental rethink, jettisoning everything it once held dear, in favour of a smarter product geared to today's more demanding holidaymaker.

"We provided pools, perfect beaches, hammocks, loungers and sunshades and all the equipment for hours of sunbathing that was seen as central to the holiday," Mr Melian went on. "But now we must provide alternative activities for tourists to fill five or six hours every day, because doctors say that more than two hours of sun is dangerous.".

That bitter message adds to the difficulties that have buffeted Spanish tourism in recent years, pushing it towards a recession that Mr Melian and his colleagues fear will not end soon. "This year, we had to work harder to earn less. Our companies have seen profits fall, and we don't expect immediate recovery," he said.

Spain stayed as Europe's favourite tourist destination but only through price-cutting and last-minute special offers that reduced profits to "practically nil", Mr Melian said.

Spanish resorts have been hit by competition not only from lower cost resorts in north Africa and the Adriatic, but especially by the growth of "all-inclusive" holidays in the Caribbean. Spain's hoteliers and restaurateurs are resigned to paring profits to the bone for one year or two in the hope of luring back holidaymakers from Tunisia or Croatia but they balk at serving free round-the-clock mojitos to youngsters flaunting a plastic wrist-band entitling them to everything they can drink.

"This new fashion of the all-inclusive formula wouldn't work in our Balearic or Canary islands because our visitors wouldn't accept being isolated from local bars and restaurants. They would feel they were being treated like prisoners," sniffed Mr Melian, himself a big operator in the Canaries.

A generation of European holidaymakers has grown up feeling at home in Spain, cosseted by cheap flights and menus in English and German. Spanish tourist hotels go to enormous lengths to provide bacon and eggs just like your corner caff.

But even that carefully cultivated home-from-home feel has turned against Spain now. "The tourist coming to Spain expects a road system, healthcare and general infrastructure equivalent to their own countries, which makes it even more difficult to compete against low-cost Mediterranean countries, even against the Caribbean," Mr Melian said.

Other factors, too, have dulled the glow of Spain's success as a sun-drenched beach paradise: Sars, continued fallout from 11 September and subsequent terror attacks such as that in Turkey last month, and economic uncertainty in Germany and France make tourists feel insecure about flying and think twice about holidaying abroad.

Spain realised some years ago that cheap, mass beach tourism was finished as a growth area, and tourism authorities now promote action holidays, cultural breaks, theme parks, conferences, green tourism, fiestas and fashion as alternative attractions to bring in the northern visitors.

Tourists visiting Barcelona spend half their money on shoes and clothes, the city's tourist board announced recently. Cultural tourism, in other words, includes Zara and Farrutx as well as Gaudi and Picasso.

Camping, trekking and water sports have long been gaining ground. Promotion of culture and the cities is in full swing, with museums and art galleries more likely to appear on the tourist brochures than beach umbrellas. But increasingly sophisticated alternatives are now on offer, often far from the usual tourist track.

Drizzly Galicia received a massive tourist plug this summer as some recompense for the Prestige disaster, and even sun-loving Spaniards found themselves bewitched by the Atlantic. A recent promotional press trip took foreign journalists on a whistle-stop tour of the historical and architectural treasures of Segovia, Avila and Cordoba.

In the more traditional destinations of the south, Andalusia now offers a Caliphs' route, celebrating the former Moorish conquest, a Bandits' route following in the steps of Tempranillo, an 19th century Robin Hood-style highwayman, a Washington Irving route in honour of the American romantic writer who lived in the Alhambra in Granada. And there are legions of teachers to choose from if you decide to take a crash course in flamenco dancing.

Gastronomy, folklore, artesanry and participation sports: those are the new slogans Spain's tourism bosses stressed this week in an attempt to keep overseas tourists coming. "Quality tourism" they say, but it costs money to develop, and in an economic downturn, the smaller number of takers has not yet outweighed the decline of sun-and-sand holidays or brought in the expected benefits from bigger per capita spending.

Amid the gloom, however, a ray of hope illuminates the tourist sector that accounts for 12 per cent of Spain's GNP and creates 1.5 million jobs.

Brits are the undisputed saviours. Germans and French may be falling away but Brits stay loyal, and have opted for Spain rather than France as their favourite destination for the first time this year.

Britons are also, increasingly, turning away from hotels, preferring to buy properties for their holidays or retirement. Strong demand from prosperous Brits is sustaining a boom in Mediterranean construction, especially in the province of Murcia, between Andalusia and Valencia , that shows little sign of slackening.

An army of cranes marches along Spain's unspoilt tract of southern shore where thousands of luxury apartments and villas are being snapped up by Britons, drawn by the laid-back lifestyle and the golf. Golf courses are proliferating in the parched land, soon to be supplied with water diverted from the Ebro river.

So, fear no more the heat of the sun, come to Spain for a round of golf and learn to cook the perfect paella.

Rival resorts

By Simon Calder

CORSICA

Spain has long enjoyed the lion's share of the traditional package holiday, but the prototype package from Gatwick in 1950 actually featured the French island of Corsica. The entrepreneur was a Russian émigré named Vladimir Raitz, who still works in the UK travel industry. In 2004, the first scheduled flights from Britain for decades will be serving the island.

PUGLIA

Many of the backpackers who hitch-hiked or Inter-Railed through Italy on their way to Greece are now middle-class parents, keen to find a corner of Europe untouched by the holidaying hordes. They may locate it along the south-eastern shores of Italy. With the first no-frills flights from Britain to Bari taking off in the new year, the hoteliers of Puglia are hoping that thousands of UK holidaymakers will discover a region previously the preserve of domestic tourists.

CROATIA

In the Eighties, one million British holidaymakers took their summer holidays in Yugoslavia each year - almost all of them in what is now Croatia. During the Nineties, the tourist trade was almost extinguished, but the beaches of the Istrian Riviera were largely unscathed by war in the former Yugoslavia. The resorts of Porec and Rovinj feature in the leading brochures for summer 2004, at prices much lower than at comparable properties in Spain.

BULGARIA

Long after the Iron Curtain had rusted away, Bulgaria's tourism industry remained a joke. The Black Sea coast was mostly of interest to those on small budgets or with a yearning for the privations of the past. Now that Spanish hoteliers have invested heavily, Bulgaria has made the mainstream brochures as an exotic (and cheap) alternative to Spain.

CRIMEA

In 1988, Richard Branson promised holidays in Yalta. The premier Crimean resort was the preserve of Communist Party cadres and received 12 million visitors a year. Numbers have fallen since it became part of Ukraine, which means more room for British holidaymakers. Interest in the peninsula will increase next summer, the 150th anniversary of Britain's entry into the Crimean War.

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