Madrid goes in search of its leitmotiv

Visitor numbers are down in the Spanish capital Experts say the city has yet to find a coherent identity to present to the outside world

Tourism stop: A Madrid tour bus travels through the city with only a few passengers onboard.
Tourism stop: A Madrid tour bus travels through the city with only a few passengers onboard.SAMUEL SÄNCHEZ

London is Big Ben, the City financial district and multiculturalism. Paris is the Eiffel Tower, the Champs-Élysées, bohemia and fashion. Rome is the Coliseum, the Vatican and the dolce vita. Berlin is the Brandenburg Gate, the reunified city and the epicenter of Europe’s tragic 20th-century history... But what about Madrid?

How many times in conversations about Spain with foreign friends has Barcelona cropped up first and only later Madrid? Personal perceptions may not carry the weight of a scientific study, but they do count for something. At any rate, that is what entrepreneurs in Madrid’s hospitality and entertainment sectors think. They feel that public institutions have failed to find the key to consolidating Madrid’s image on an international scale.

Madrid city officials share the view that the capital needs a marketing push. The municipal Strategic Tourism Plan for 2012-15 mentions, among other things, that “there is no order to what the city has to offer culturally” and that it is necessary to “cooperate with the private sector and have no qualms about pushing stereotypes (flamenco, bullfighting...), besides showing the real image of a modern, service-oriented city.”

Dirk van Dorssen, 26, and Arnoul Reitsma, 25 (The Netherlands)

Is this your first time in Madrid? Yes. How long will you be staying here? One night. Are you on your way to somewhere else? Yes, we're headed to an electronic music festival in Portugal. How much money do you think you will you spend while you are here? We're staying at a hostel, we're paying 24 euros between four people. What was your idea of Madrid before you came here? A place for partying. Which of the Spanish capital's sights do you want to visit? We don't have any plans.

For now, at least, these measures seem to be bearing little fruit. According to figures released by the National Statistics Institute (INE) on July 23, Madrid had 415,792 foreign visitors in June, nearly 30,000 fewer than the same month last year. The drop is even more significant than that of domestic tourism (7,000 fewer Spaniards visited the city). The average number of overnight stays also fell from 1.87 to 1.86 (the national average is 3.52 nights).

Lluis Bassat, a famous publicist and one of the masterminds behind the success of the Barcelona brand, notes that “Madrid should have no inferiority complex of any kind, because it has exceptional sights.” He admits the crisis has hurt the city’s image, and that major metropolises in emerging countries, such as Rio de Janeiro, are experiencing greater growth than those in Spain, besides having great future projects. Even so, Bassat believes in Madrid’s potential.

“Madrid mustn’t obsess about seeking architectural landmarks, but about finding its own leitmotiv. Madrid is where I have tasted the best huevos estrellados [fried eggs with potatoes] ever. Madrid’s culinary offerings are enough to make you dizzy, and I’m not just talking about a few ‘in’ establishments, but about the countless authentic taverns offering food at unbelievably low prices.”

Bita Bjornsson, 60 (Norway)

Is this your first time in Madrid? No. How long will you be here? Four days. Are you on your way somewhere else? Yes, my husband and I are on our way to León. We're doing the Camino de Santiago. How much money will you spend here? Around 600 euros between shopping and restaurants. Our hotel is 75 euros a night. What was your idea of Madrid before coming? A cosmopolitan city with multiple outdoor activities. What sights do you want to see? The Prado, Thyssen and Reina Sofía. We also want to see a flamenco show.

In the Catalan publicist’s opinion, Madrid should make a list of over 1,000 things the city has to offer. A Real Madrid soccer match, the paintings of Velázquez and Goya... “What is certain is that this requires communication professionals, and Madrid has very good ones who would surely be able to find this leitmotiv.”

Another expert in brand creation and management, Miguel Otero, director general of the Forum of Renowned Spanish Brands, agrees with Bassat that “a brand-territory must be managed professionally, it has to be registered. I am not aware if the administration took measures against Air Madrid, an airline that went broke, caused setbacks to passengers and whose name coincides with the name of the city you are trying to promote.”

Beyond all the grand projects, Otero also stresses the importance of caring about the everyday details of city life. “Tourists are looking for a favorable environment where everything counts. Issues like good signposting in streets and buildings, taxi drivers who can speak English, overall courtesy... all of it factors into a city’s image,” argues Otero, who admits to the importance of international promotion but offers alternatives to money. “Sometimes, an intelligent public relations policy can be more useful than a major international campaign with the wrong focus. Evidently, the city needs to have attributes to attract tourists, but Madrid already has them.”

Kayin Xie, 21, and Yui Yuan, 25 (China)

Is this your first time in Madrid? Yes. How long will you be here? Four days. Are you on your way to somewhere else? Yes, from here we fly to Barcelona, where we will spend six days. How much money do you think you will spend here? Not much, we'll just buy the odd souvenir. We are paying 30 euros a night for a double room in a hostel in the city center. What was your idea of Madrid before coming here? Trying the tapas is our main goal. What sights do you want to see? We want to go for walks in the main squares and markets.

Bassat insists on the capital’s cultural potential. “Many cities in the world only wish they had a park like El Retiro right in the center. Besides, Madrid ranks right near the top when it comes to museums and private cultural foundations,” he adds. It is this angle, he notes, that should be pursued, rather than projects such as the US-funded EuroVegas casino complex, which Madrid and Barcelona are fighting over. If Madrid wins the battle, Otero does not believe it will completely contaminate the city, but he does feel “it would be very negative to have a model based on mass tourism.”

“Madrid has not done its homework,” argues José Santamaría, communications secretary for the Association of Businesses and Professionals for Gays and Lesbians in Madrid, AEGAL. This organization puts together the annual Gay Pride festival, one of the city’s most highly attended celebrations and a source of significant income for the local entertainment industry.

Santamaría — who says he is grateful to the city for participating in the organization of Gay Pride and contributing 60,000 euros to its 250,000-euro budget, as well as for Madrid’s candidacy to organize World Pride 2017 — still believes city officials cannot rest on their laurels. “Cities such as Istanbul and Tel Aviv are making great efforts to become attractive for the gay community. It’s true that international promotion is expensive, but you need to have some imagination,” he says.

But the high costs of developing international promotional campaigns are running into the economic crisis. It seems like despite its cultural heritage, its food and the lifestyle of a city that, like New York, never sleeps, Madrid still needs to find a narrative that will convey its unmistakable identity to the world.

Meric Atalar, 20, and Bora Ozkum, 20 (Turkey)

Is this your first time in Madrid? Yes. How long will you be here? Three days. Are you en route elsewhere? Yes. We're on a tour of Spain: Barcelona, Seville and Granada. How much money will you spend? We were thinking of sleeping out in the mountains, but it's too hot. We're paying 20 euros a night for a hostel room. What was your idea of Madrid before coming here? We see it as part of an exotic, open country. What sights do you want to see? Museums and green areas. No stores or shopping. We want things cheap.

Chris Costermans, 40, and Krista van Auk, 39 (Belgium)

Is this your first time in Madrid? Yes. How long will you be here? Two days. Are you en route elsewhere? Yes. We were returning from Málaga and we stopped to visit the capital. How much money will you spend? We're paying 75 euros a night for a four-person room. We're not planning to spend money on anything other than lunch and dinner, around 100 euros. What was your idea of Madrid before coming? Our friends recommended it. What sights do you want to see? Our son is excited about seeing the Santiago Bernabéu stadium.

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