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Cracks appear in Spain’s low-cost tourism model

Travel may support local economies, but some cities can no longer accommodate the flood of visitors

Tourists take in the sun at Magaluf beach in Mallorca.
Tourists take in the sun at Magaluf beach in Mallorca.David Ramos (Getty Images)

If it lives up to expectations, 2016 will be a record year for world tourism. Right now the number of travelers who went abroad for purely recreational trips in 2015 is a record 1.184 billion. Of these foreign vacationers, Spain received 68.1 million, a figure likely to be overtaken in a matter of months. The latest statistics show that foreign tourists coming to Spain still seek out the sun, flocking to the country’s beaches. Catalonia was the most popular destination in 2015, (17.4 million people) followed by the Balearic and Canary Islands (tied at 11.6 million) and Andalusia (9.3 million). The profile of the typical tourist in Spain is British, flying into Catalonia or the Canary Islands, settling into a hotel and spending an average of €116 a day.

The tourism industry is a powerful driving force for Spain’s economy – but can it survive its own success?

The tourism industry is a powerful force in Spain’s economy, generating a wide array of jobs and substantial revenue, but the question is whether the country’s long-standing low-cost model can survive its own success. The  efforts poured into attracting visitors has caused population density per square meter to exceed capacity in some areas. For example, when the monstrous “Harmony of the Seas” (a cruise ship that’s more like a floating city, able to accommodate 7,000 passengers and 2,000 crew members) suddenly descends on Barcelona, an avalanche of tourists pours down the city’s central Las Ramblas thoroughfare, packs out Gaudi’s unfinished Sagrada Familia basilica, overwhelms the Boquería market, and floods the scenic Park Güell.

The paradigm of the mass, “all-inclusive” family vacation can be found at Marina D’Or Ciudad de Vacaciones, a vast seaside complex in Oropesa, Castellón, made up of 15,000 apartments, five hotels and dozens of children’s attractions, restaurants, shops and spas. Salou (Tarragona), Lloret de Mar (Girona) and Magaluf (Mallorca) are other hugely popular destinations for travelers seeking fun in the sun washed down with cheap drinks. Given that German travel agency Tui promotes the Balearic Islands as the ideal spot to “party until the doctor comes,” it’s no surprise the islands now hold the title “ethylic excursions” attracting rowdy, disruptive crowds.

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The combined availability of low-cost flights and accommodation have done little to counter the tourism sector’s race to the bottom, which in the long run, could frighten away visitors looking for a higher quality, more sustainable family vacation. In short, the tourism sector faces the possibility that inebriated, aggressive visitors will take over popular destinations, discouraging higher-end visitors interested in culture, art, history, or food.

In response, a number of city halls are planning to limit tourist numbers to protect their public spaces. The Canarian island of Fuerteventura, its services and resources increasingly under pressure, has set 2.5 million as the maximum number of visitors it can take per year before the island’s quality of life begins to erode.

English version by Allison Light.


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