Spain’s tourism industry celebrates strong summer season

The sector saw a record-high number of domestic travelers in July, but is struggling to lure back international visitors due to the pandemic

Tourists in Boqueria market in Barcelona.
Tourists in Boqueria market in Barcelona.MASSIMILIANO MINOCRI (EL PAÍS)
Hugo Gutiérrez

The crisis that has gripped Spain’s tourism industry as a result of the coronavirus pandemic appears to have come to an end. For more than a year, the sector – which is one of Spain’s main economic drivers – has been struggling to survive, with the number of tourists visiting the country at a record low. But this summer is on track to exceed the industry’s expectations – a feat made possible thanks to the large number of domestic tourists. Indeed, more national visitors traveled across Spain this year than in 2019, the year before the pandemic hit the country.

“The summer has been very good. We have hotels that have even done better than in August 2019,” says Antonio Catalón, the president of AC Hotels by Marriott.

Ramón Aragonés, the managing director of NH Hotel Group, agrees, explaining the season has been particularly positive for sites in the north of Spain and along the coast. “The behavior in Spain has been better than the average of our hotels on a global level, with average occupancy close to 55% in July and 60% in August.”

The summer has been very good. We have hotels that have even done better than in August 2019
Antonio Catalón, president of AC Hotels by Marriott

These figures are considered a success, especially given the uncertainty ahead of summer over the spread of the more contagious delta variant in Spain. The alarm over the coronavirus strain was so great that the main source countries of tourism to Spain – the United Kingdom, Germany and France – recommended against travel to the country. This concern, however, eased largely due to the strong progress of Spain’s Covid-19 vaccination drive, which has now fully vaccinated 70% of the population.

In addition to the vaccine rollout, the savings made by households during the pandemic have also helped bolster the summer high season, especially among Spaniards who opted to travel within the country rather than abroad. According to the National Statistics Institute (INE), Spanish residents made 14.9 million overnight hotel stays in July 2020, compared to 14.8 million in the same month of 2019. This is the highest figure since the beginning of the historical series in 1999. Although the increase is small – just 0.37% – it marks a before and after for the sector after months of devastating results. A similar trend was seen also in overnight stays in other accommodation, such as tourist apartments and camping sites.

Spain also registered a record-high number of domestic tourists in July: 5.8 million, up from 5.7 million in the same month in 2019. While this is also just a small rise, it is still good news for the tourism industry. It also accounts for the increase in tourist spending, which according to BBVA Research, rose 20% in July with respect to 2019.

Even though travel restrictions across Europe were relaxed thanks to the Covid-19 vaccination drive, Spain still needs to win back foreign tourists, who are key to the industry. According to data from the INE on overnight hotel stays, foreign visitors spent €11.5 million in July 2021, down from €28.3 million in the same month in 2019 – a drop of 60%. The total number of tourists in this category also fell 57%.

This has various negative repercussions: fewer flights, lower tourist spending in hotels and restaurants and less revenue for businesses linked to tourism. “These months have been good for destinations that have local tourism, but travelers from abroad have been missed. Stores and restaurants live from these visitors in the big cities,” explain sources from the business sector that depends most on tourism.

In terms of air travel, 15 million passengers traveled to Spanish airports in July, half the number in July 2019, according to Spanish airport operator Aena. If only foreign arrivals are taken into account, the number drops to 4.4 million, according to Turespaña, the institute of tourism in Spain. This is a fall of 60% compared to data from the same month in 2019.

The expectations for the German market are positive and we have detected an improvement among British customers. In September, we will be approaching 2019 levels
Hotel group Meliá

The sector, however, remains optimistic that the number of international visitors will bounce back in the coming months. This outlook is partly due to Germany’s decision to remove all of Spain from its list of at-risk countries on Sunday – a move that has led to a flurry of reservations for the end of August. The Canary Islands were also removed from this list at an earlier date.

“Since Germany decided to put the Canary Islands on the green list [of travel destinations], we have received a flood of reservations. August has been good and it appears September will be too for this destination,” say sources from the hotel chain Riu.

The hotel group Meliá is also optimistic: “The expectations for the German market are positive and we have detected an improvement among British customers. In September, we will be approaching 2019 levels.”

“In the Balearic and Canary islands, the occupancy for summer has been in line with what was forecast and new reservations continue to be made for September,” adds Alejandro Reynal, the managing director of Apple Leisure Group, who is confident the positive epidemiological situation in Spain will allow the season to extend for some time.

Indeed, the hotel industry is hoping to extend the vacation season across September and October by promoting short-term getaways. This, however, will be more difficult for coastal destinations that rely on good weather.

In these cases, Catalán from AC by Marriott warns against creating false expectations: “The cycles are what they are. The strong season in these summer destinations is in July and August. In September there are people who extend the season, but the stays will be increasingly short.”

The outlook for the Canary Islands, however, is more positive given its high season is in winter. “The forecasts are good but it is too soon to see if we will see an increase in occupancy. But it’s true there are more and more reservations for November and December, which shows there is interest,” says Reynal.

English version by Melissa Kitson.

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