TOURISM

Getting away from it all... on the cheap

The crisis keep getting worse but there are still ways for cash-strapped families to take a break

This summer is a record one for the ice chest, according to people in the hospitality sector who say that most beachgoers, like this family in Málaga, are in picnic mode.
This summer is a record one for the ice chest, according to people in the hospitality sector who say that most beachgoers, like this family in Málaga, are in picnic mode. JULIÁN ROJAS

Picnic hampers, Tupperware, folding tables, giant umbrellas, beer in the portable fridge, and a bad back thanks to the plastic folding chairs: vacations by the sea, anybody? To judge by the overcrowding on Spain’s beaches this summer, like it or not, many families have headed for the coast. Despite the crisis, or perhaps because of it, Spaniards are still determined to grab a few days of rest and relaxation, one way or the other.

Among the formulas are sharing an apartment with another family, house swaps, all-inclusive package deals, a cruise to reduce costs — and of course no eating out or lounging at the beach bar — as well as the last resort of a stay with the relatives in the village.

With a quarter of the workforce unemployed, and salary cuts hitting the pockets of millions more, there will also be plenty of people staying at home this summer — if they still have a home. According to surveys, around half of the inhabitants of the capital, and a third of Barcelona residents say that they will be staying in the city this summer, a substantial increase on last year.

And even for those lucky enough to be still in work, and that have been able to put a little cash aside, this year’s vacations are going to be low-cost and local; aware that September will bring with it the expenses associated with their children’s return to school, and prices hikes across the board.

The minister for industry and tourism, José Manuel Soria, should be smirking behind his Aznaresque mustache as he took it upon himself to remind Spaniards this month that a vacation in the homeland was always a more satisfying option than trusting to the vagaries of “remote corners of the world.” It may be the austerity measures imposed by Soria’s Popular Party government that have led millions of Spanish families to tighten their belts still further, but he was adamant that “the 57 million tourists who come to Spain each year can’t be wrong.”

Gerard Costa, a lecturer at the ESADE business school, and an expert on consumption trends, identifies three behavior patterns among those who will be spending a few days away because they have been able to put a little cash aside over the course of this economically very difficult year. According to a survey by ESADE’s Consumption Observatory, around a quarter of would-be vacationers hope to reduce their holiday budget this year by half, compared to last year. “The idea is to reduce costs. They will spend the minimum number of nights away, or will try to stay with friends or family. For example, we looked at the case of a family in Barcelona that has gone to Galicia, and will be staying in a cousin’s house; later on, the cousin will stay in their house in Barcelona,” explains Costa.

Many Spanish families still have small apartments bought decades ago on the coast by thrifty parents in the days when a holiday at home was the norm. Similarly, there is often a house belonging to a grandparent in a village. “We used to rent an apartment for a week in Valencia. But not this summer: a week at my sister’s house in Alicante so that the kids can enjoy the beach, and for the rest of the time we’ll go to the village in León where my husband’s family comes from,” says Conchi, a psychologist from Palencia who has just lost her job working with the long-term unemployed on a project run the regional government of Castilla y León.

Another quarter of those who will be taking vacations, according to ESADE, will be scouring the internet for last-minute bargains in a bid to make further savings. And the remaining 50 percent is made up of people who, secure in their job, and with money in the bank, can still look forward to a lengthy holiday overseas. But even this group, says ESADE, will be looking to make savings.

The all-included approach makes it easier to rein in spending

“People are clearly being much more rational about their spending. These tourists can go to Thailand for two weeks, but they will be going on all-inclusive packages so as to avoid any unexpected costs,” says Costa.

The all-included approach makes it easier to rein in spending, which explains the growing popularity of cruises. “For 600 euros you can spend an entire week sailing around the Mediterranean, and it gets round the problem of where to go and what to do. It is a practical solution, especially for families with children. The biggest beneficiaries in the tourism sector of the crisis are undoubtedly the cruise operators,” says Rafael Gallego, president of the Spanish Confederation of Travel Agencies.

At the mid-way point in the summer holiday season, there are still no official figures on how many people will have been away in July and August. But the tourism sector has some initial data. Take Benidorm: bookings up until July were almost the same as last year, with around 90 percent of hotel rooms occupied. That said, Benidorm’s continuing popularity is largely due to the British, with bookings for July from the UK up 12 percent, in contrast to a seven- and four-percent fall in bookings by Spaniards in the first and second half of the month respectively. And it’s not just that few Spaniards are staying in hotels; those that do are spending much less.

“The decline in spending is being felt across the board,” says Yolanda Pickett, manager of the Benidorm Tourism Foundation. “Restaurants, shops, night clubs, beach bars… You only have to take a look at the beach to see that it is full of mini-fridges! Spaniards continue to come to Benidorm because it is easy to get to, and people can make their way here by car. But they are staying less time, which means that the hotels are less full, and above all, people are spending much less money.”

It’s the same story further down the Mediterranean coast, in Andalusia. “People take a picnic down to the beach, and will only eat out once or twice. And when they do, you get a family of eight ordering paella for four,” says Norberto del Castillo, who heads a regional organization of businesses associated with beach tourism. “People will still pay for a sun bed and an umbrella, though; it’s still the best value.”

Up in Catalonia, a 50-percent increase in visitors from Russia has breathed new life into the resorts along the Costa Dorada and the Costa Brava. Salou, for example, has seen a sharp drop in the number of visitors from Aragon and other regions in the interior, who traditionally come here. Given the trend this summer to leave all bookings until the last moment, hotel owners say that they are finding it very difficult to make plans.

“There are areas on the coast where hotels only have bookings up until August 20, and have no idea whether they will be able to fill rooms after that, because people are still looking for bargains,” says Joan Molas, president of the Spanish Confederation of Hotels and Tourism Accommodation. Empordá, on the Costa Brava, has 40 percent of its rooms free after August 20, a situation it hasn’t ever had to face.

The uncertainty is straining the nerves of many in the industry, says Félix Sobrino, manager of an office of one of Spain’s best-known travel agencies, Zeppelin. “People are worried and are not deciding where to go until the last moment. Until recently, people would reserve their hotel up to two months ahead; right now we have no idea how August will end. It is very difficult to know how to handle prices and offers.” Joan Molas says that as a consequence, hotel owners are bringing prices down in a bid to grab the attention of would-be holiday makers surfing the internet for last-minute deals.

But the definitive indicator of the crisis in the tourism sector can be seen in two areas that have proved consistently popular with Spaniards over the decades: the Cantabrian coast and rural tourism in Castilla y León. Molas says that the collapse has been “spectacular: up to 40 percent in some areas. Unemployment was already high last year, but this year it has risen further, and the fall in purchasing power and most people’s worries about the future are being felt in the sector: shorter stays mean that some hotels are not bothering to open at Easter, and are waiting until late June.”

If only a third of residents in Barcelona are staying at home this year, compared to half of Madrileños, the reason, says Bruno Hallé, a partner at tourism consultants Magma Turism, is less to do with canny Catalans saving their euros, and more to do with the proximity of the Costa Brava. That said, their stays on the coast are shorter than they used to be. “We are seeing a change: people used to go away for four or five days, and now they are staying for just two nights.”

Less money: less time away. The days when families would up sticks for the entire month of July or August are long gone; but now it seems families are not even able to take two weeks holiday. Félix Sobrino says that the average stay away at the beach is now eight days: “Not long ago, it was impossible to rent an apartment for less than a week; now it is possible to do so for just a couple of days.”

Martí Sabriá, who runs the Costa Brava Centre, which represents the area’s restaurants and hotels, sees the same trend. He says that the same amount of cars are on the road, and the same number of people are to be seen in and around resorts like Salou and Lloret de Mar. The difference with previous years is that more people are either staying in apartments owned by friends and family, or they are staying for very short periods of time in hotels. These “ultra-short” stays explain how outwardly, things look the same as in previous years. According to a poll carried out by Familitur, which monitors family vacations, the same number of people are managing to get away as in 2005; they just do so for shorter periods.

Some in the tourism sector say that the generally gloomy mood in Spain has meant that even those who can still afford to take longer breaks and to eat in restaurants while on vacation are tightening their belts. “We see clients who seem to find it embarrassing to sit down to a slap-up meal when they know that so many others, including friends and family, may well be having difficulty in paying their mortgage,” says Antonio de María, president of Horeca, the association that represents hotel owners in Cádiz.

Strangely enough, campsites, the one niche within the tourism industry that should have benefited from the depression, have not seen any increased uptake by Spaniards. In the rest of Europe, between 20 and 40 percent of vacationers opt for a stay under canvas: in Spain, the figure is barely one percent. “There is no tradition of camping: there are so many cheap hotels on the coast, as well as bed and breakfasts in rural areas, so camping has never taken off. It should also be borne in mind that unless you really do sleep in a tent, renting a caravan or a bungalow can turn out to be as expensive as staying in a cheap hotel,” says Ana Beriain, president of the Federation of Camp Sites and Vacation Parks.

House swapping, something that Spaniards have traditionally not found attractive, is beginning to take off, says Sergio Escote, the manager of house-swapping agency HomeforHome. “The profile of people interested in this approach is gradually shifting,” he says. “Before it was people in their forties and fifties, with their own home, and who were looking to vacation abroad. But nowadays we are getting more interest from younger people, and they are interested in shorter stays, even weekends, and we are now seeing that 70 percent of exchanges are within Spain.”

For those who can still scrape together a little cash, there are still many options that allow for a few days away from home, and the chance to forget about Spain’s worsening problems. “It’s probably till a better investment to spend a bit of time at the seaside, sipping a beer rather than giving your money to a psychologist. We need to be able to forget things for a while; especially with what we will have to face in the coming years,” says Antonio de María.