Why Spain is yet to cut a slice of the global wedding tourism cake

Overseas visits are at record levels, but few foreign couples are opting for a Spanish marriage

Carolina and James Escudero-Spelling outside the Hotel Vincci Aleysa in Benalmádena, Málaga province, on their wedding day.
Carolina and James Escudero-Spelling outside the Hotel Vincci Aleysa in Benalmádena, Málaga province, on their wedding day.SI!Quiero

Carolina Escudero-Spelling was born by the Caribbean, in the Colombian city of Barranquilla, but when she and her British partner James decided to tie the knot, instead of doing so in south London, where they live, they opted for another sea, the Mediterranean, and the resort town of Marbella. “We chose Spain for its climate, the food, and because I have a brother who lives there,” she says.

There are many reasons to visit Spain, as the 60.8 million overseas tourists who have vacationed here so far this year demonstrate. However, getting married isn’t usually one of them. In fact, the numbers are so small that tourism authorities don’t even bother recording them, and this despite the growing importance of wedding tourism around the world – the niche is worth around €14.85 billion, according to 2014 figures released by the Destination Wedding Planners Congress.

In Florence, you can get married in the Uffizi gallery. In Spain you can’t do anything remotely similar” Sira Antequera, founder of wedding organizer SiQuiero!

The reasons that Spain – the world’s third-most-popular holiday destination after France and the United States – has yet to cut itself a slice of that global wedding cake are largely due to red tape. “In Florence, you can get married in the Uffizi gallery,” says Sira Antequera, who founded wedding organizer SiQuiero! 16 years ago, and arranged Carolina and James’s event. “In Spain you can’t do anything remotely similar.”

She says that under Spanish law one member of the couple must have been resident in Spain for at least two years in order to hold a civil wedding, though the Catholic Church has no such stipulations. “This makes it difficult for people, because all they can do is have a symbolic ceremony, which is not legally binding. We lose an enormous number of weddings to other countries that don’t apply the same demands as Spain,” Antequera says.

Carolina and James Escudero-Spelling on their wedding day.
Carolina and James Escudero-Spelling on their wedding day.

One of the most popular destinations for weddings is Florence, which last year earned €100 million from marriage ceremonies, benefiting local hotels, restaurants, shops and other businesses. Equally popular is Mexico’s Riviera Maya – which attracts large numbers of US citizens – along with Hawaii and Las Vegas. Many of these destinations are now trying to attract gay couples in order to continue growing.

But some Spanish regional governments are beginning to see the potential of wedding tourism. A change to the law now makes it possible to hold ceremonies on beaches in the Canary Islands. “This year we’ve only celebrated one wedding, but we have three planned on the sand for next year,” says Rocío Aparicio, the creative director of Alma Salada, a wedding organizer based in the islands.

It costs around €70 plus a €300 deposit to be married on Tenerife’s Las Teresitas beach. “A couple can hold their wedding on the beach and then have the reception in a 17th-century mansion, and all without having to travel more than six kilometers,” explains Gemma González, the director of Gabrielle Konnali, another wedding organizer based in the Canaries. “Or they can marry on one island and then spend their honeymoon on another.”

In Madrid, Sofía Miranda, a city councilor for the Ciudadanos party, has suggested holding weddings in the Torres Arias palace, a former stately home sitting amid 14 acres of grounds in the northeast of the capital that was recently ceded to City Hall. “Looking at the international figures, the tourist segments that are growing fastest are shopping and weddings,” she says. “Italy has a 20-year head start on us.” Those who opt to get married abroad tend to be wealthy and to invite large numbers of guests, who will typically stay in four- and five-star hotels, she adds.

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Of the 158,425 weddings held in Spain in 2014 – down by 27 percent from 2000 – 4,292 were between foreigners, while a further 21,548 marriages were between Spaniards and foreigners. What the figures don’t show is demand, says González of Gabrielle Konali: “Faced with the paperwork required, a lot of couples simply hold a symbolic ceremony and the reception here.”

Sometimes it is Spaniards who live abroad that decide to return home to marry; in other cases, people are attracted by the beauty of a particular location, or the climate, or simply because it is cheaper. The current strength of the pound against the euro was one of the reasons Carolina Escudero-Spelling decided to marry in Marbella six weeks ago, after rejecting Switzerland, where her husband grew up. “It would have cost twice as much as Spain,” she says.

Cheaper travel means that people no longer have to marry where they were born or where they live. “We live in a globalized world with couples from different countries, so it is easier to pick a neutral place. It’s not like when our parents married,” says Carolina.

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