Spain's tourism sector gets boost from Arab revolts

Spain is getting a boost to its hugely important tourist industry as northern European sunseekers shun popular resorts in Egypt and Tunisia because of anti-government uprisings there.

The country has struggled in recent years to compete with beach destinations in Egypt's Red Sea and Tunisia's Mediterranean coast which are cheaper and of a similar flying distance from its key markets like Germany and Britain.

But since the unrest sweeping the Arab world began in Tunisia in early January, tourists have been changing their travel plans, and Spain, especially the Canary Islands off the coast of Morocco, has been one of the main beneficiaries.

The country received 2.66 million foreign tourists in January, a 4.7 percent increase over the same month last year and the first rise in 18 months, the industry and tourism ministry said last week.

The Canary Islands attracted the most tourists. It was the destination of choice for 866,476 foreign visitors last month, a jump of 8.8 percent.

"We have benefited in a way from the crisis in Egypt and Tunisia because it has diverted tourists from those countries, especially to the Canaries," Tourism Minister Miguel Sebastian said after the figures were released.

"This should not, however, be the goal of our policy. Our policy is to boost competitiveness and improve the promotion of Spain abroad, especially in the tourist market countries of the future like Russia, China and India from where we still receive few tourists."

Tourism operators estimate up to 300,000 extra visitors may come to the archipelago for the winter season which ends in late April, according to the regional government of Canary Islands.

Other regions are also getting a boost, especially the Balearic Islands in the Mediterranean whose resorts, like those in the Canaries, tend to offer all inclusive packages like those in the seaside resorts of Tunisia and Egypt.

"The countries that have benefited most from the situation in Egypt are Spain, with bookings to the Balearics up 30 percent year-on-year, and Greece, up 20 percent," the head of Europe's second-largest tour operator Thomas Cook, Manny Fontenla-Novoa, said in an e-mail.

Online flight search engine reports a "significant increase" in flight searches to Spain since the protests began while searches to Tunisia have plunged by 50 percent, and those to Egypt by 30 percent.

Barcelona saw the largest rise in flight searches last month, a 22 percent increase, followed by Tenerife in the Canaries with a rise of 12 percent, it said.

Both Egypt and Tunisia are mostly calm for now but fears persist that unrest could return is likely to deter many visitors in the short term.

The deputy general director of Spanish tourism board Turespana, Alvaro Blanco, said tourists were being "lent" to Spain from Egypt and Tunisia and the country needed to work to win their business for the future.

"These are tourists who at best would not have chosen Spain if they had not been forced to change their plans due to a crisis in these two nations. We need to show them now that Spain is a safe destination that is nearby," he said.

Some hoteliers see reasons to be worried, however.

The revolts in the Arab world have caused oil prices to soar and this could lead to higher plane fares and fewer tourists in the future, said the spokesman of the Majorca hotel federation, Juan Antonio Fuster.

"In a highly interconnected global economy, instability in the Mediterranean Basin can have negative economic consequences that affect Spain's tourism sector," he said.

Spain slipped from third to fourth place among the world's most visited countries in 2010, behind France, the United States and China, according to figures from the UN World Tourism Organisation.