Russian visitors break tourism and spending records

Visa relaxation and better travel opportunities have helped

A Russian bar in El Ejido.
A Russian bar in El Ejido.SAMUEL SÁNCHEZ / EL PAÍS

Tourism is one of the few sectors that have become a source of optimism for the Spanish economy. The number of foreign visitors to Spain increased throughout the whole of 2012, with fourth quarter figures the highest, while the average spending by these visitors has also risen.

But there is one group of foreign visitors to Spain that has broken all the tourism records: Russians.

Between January and November last year, the number of Russian visitors increased by 42 percent in comparison to that same period in 2011. For the first time, over one million Russians visited here last year. What Russians spent in Spain also surpassed the cash forked out by other foreign tourists.

Nevertheless, for every Russian tourist, there are 13 who come from Great Britain.

From January to November, 1.17 million Russians came to Spain, according to data from the Industry, Energy and Tourism Ministry. In 2010, some 605,276 people from the former Soviet Union arrived in Spain.

Among the reasons why Spain has become a popular destination are a rise in the number of Russian tourist operators and relaxation of restrictions on visas. Tourism campaigns in Moscow have also increased while some regions, such as Catalonia, have opened their own offices in the Russian capital.

Air routes have also improved with Lufthansa, Swissair and Vueling offering services between Moscow and Barcelona and Madrid.

But while these figures are seen as positive, they are still not enough to support the entire tourism sector. For example the 45,247 tourists from Russia who came to Spain in November only made up 1.5 percent of all the foreign nationals who visited Spain that month. And the total 1.17 million Russians who came last year made up 2.1 percent of all foreign visitors to Spain.

Britain continues to lead the Spanish tourism sector, with 13 million visitors last year, followed by Germany, with nine million; France, with 8.5 million; and 3.4 million coming from Italy.

Yet compared with visitors from other countries, Russians spend more. According to Egatur, the average Russian spent 988 euros compared to the average Briton, who spent 807 euros.

Tourism accounts for around 11 percent of Spain's GDP and a similar percentage of jobs. It is also a valuable source of overseas income. Spain is aiming to post a current account surplus next year after running the second-biggest deficit in the world before the current crisis began in 2008.

And Russians are not just visiting - they are also snatching up properties on Spain's Mediterranean coast.

On the Costa Dorada and the Costa del Sol, realtors are now targeting Russian buyers. In complexes such as Europa Dom on the Costa Dorada, 75 percent of the properties are Russian-owned.