Weak rouble to hit Russian tourism to Spain

Tourism operators in Spain are worried a weak rouble could take a serious bite out of luxury Russian tourism to the country, a booming business in recent years.

Tourism has remained a bright spark for Spain during the long years of economic crisis.

While the country's unemployment queues have grown to hit nearly 25 percent and growth has been fragile at best, Spain's tourism sector has continued to expand. 

In 2013, Spain retook the number three spot in world tourism from China, luring a record 60.6 million international visitors, behind only France with 83 million and the United States with 67 million.
Traditional stalwarts like the Brits, the Germans and the French continue to make up the lion's share of international visitors to Spain, but they have now been joined by other groups including the Chinese.
But it's the Russians who have proved the real surprise package. And while Russian tourists made up just 2.6 percent of the total number of visitor arrivals in 2013, their numbers showed the biggest jump, surging 31.6 percent from 2012.
Critically, many of those Russians have climbed abroad the luxury tourism bandwagon in locations including Spain's Costa del Sol but also, notably, in highly popular Barcelona. 
However, a weak rouble now seriously threatens the industry.
Figures from Spain's national tourism agency Frontur show there was a 22 percent drop in the number of visitors from Russia in October, part of an eight percent overall decline in the year to date.
Spanish hotel association Cehat is now predicting a drop of 20 to 22 percent in Russian visitor numbers over the winter, according to tourism magazine Preferente.
"We've seen falls since the start of the year but since the beginning of summer we have seen drops of up to 50 percent and there is no sign things are going to pick up," Luis Sans, owner of the luxury brands store Santa Eulàlia in Barcelona's iconic Paseo de Gràcia told Catalan daily La Vanguardia.  
That's despite Barcelona having remained relatively immune to a fall in the number of Russian tourists, with visitors from the country making a third of all tax-free purchases in the city.
On Catalonia's Costa Brava and Costa Dorada coastlines, however, the situation is more complicated.
"We are really in a difficult situation because many tourism operators are on the point of collapse," said an operator at Serhs, one of the main tourism operators for Russian clients in Spain. 
"The threat that Russian will stop coming en masse and will only come individually is real," the Serhs spokesperson said. 

"For a season it looks as if we are going to have to forget about being positive in terms of this market," said Sans at  the Santa Eulàlia store.
"It's going to be hard to repeat the opulence of the last two years," he said.

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The architect trying to finish the Sagrada Familia after 138 years

Jordi Faulí is the seventh chief architect of Barcelona's iconic Sagrada Familia since Antoni Gaudi began work on the basilica in 1883, and he had been expected to oversee its long-awaited completion.

The architect trying to finish the Sagrada Familia after 138 years
Jordi Faulí is the seventh architect director of the Sagrada Familia following Antoni Gaudi and, for many, the one destined to finish it. Photo: Lluis Gene/AFP

But the pandemic has delayed efforts to finish this towering architectural masterpiece, which has been under construction for nearly 140 years, and it is no longer clear whether Faulí will still be in charge when it is finally done.

“I would like to be here for many more years, of course, but that’s in God’s hands,” says Faulí, 62, a wry smile on his lips.

He was just 31 when he joined the architectural team as a local in 1990 — the same age as Gaudi when the innovative Catalan architect began building his greatest work in the late 19th century, a project that would take up four decades of his life.

“When I arrived, only three of these columns were built and they were only 10 metres (33 feet) high,” he explains from a mezzanine in the main nave.

“I was lucky enough to design and see the construction of the entire interior, then the sacristy and now the main towers.”

When finished, the ornate cathedral which was designed by Gaudi will have 18 towers, the tallest of which will reach 172 metres into the air.

READ ALSO: Pandemic to delay completion fate for Barcelona’s Sagrada Familia

The second-highest tower, which is 138 metres tall and dedicated to the Virgin Mary, will be officially inaugurated on Wednesday with the illumination of the gigantic 5.5-tonne star crowning its highest point.

It is the tallest of the nine completed towers and the first to be inaugurated since 1976.

The long-awaited completion of Barcelona’s Sagrada Familia will no longer happen in 2026 because the coronavirus epidemic has curtailed its construction and frustrated funding, basilica officials admitted. Photo: Pau Barrena/AFP
Construction halted by Civil War

In 2019, the Sagrada Familia welcomed 4.7 million visitors, making it Barcelona’s most visited monument.

But it was forced to close in March 2020 as the Covid-19 pandemic took hold, with its doors staying shut for almost a year.

This year, there have been barely 764,000 visitors, municipal figures show.

And as entry tickets are the main source of funding for the ongoing building works, the goal of finishing the basilica by 2026 to mark the 100th anniversary of Gaudi’s death — he was run over by a tram — has been abandoned.

“We can’t give any estimate as to when it will be finished because we don’t know how visitor numbers will recover in the coming years,” Faulí says.

It is far from the first time Gaudi’s masterpiece has faced such challenges.

During the Spanish Civil War in the late 1930s, construction work stopped and many of Gaudi’s design plans and models were destroyed.

For critics, this major loss means they do not view what was built later as Gaudi’s work, despite the research carried out by his successors.

READ ALSO: Central spire will make the Sagrada Familia tallest church in the world

UNESCO, the United Nations’ cultural agency, has only granted World Heritage status to the Sagrada Familia’s crypt and one of its facades, both of which were built during Gaudi’s lifetime.

But Faulí insists the project remains faithful to what Gaudi had planned as it is based on the meticulous study of photographs, drawings and testimony from the late Modernist architect.

UNESCO, the United Nations’ cultural agency, has only granted World Heritage status to the Sagrada Familia’s crypt and one of its facades, both of which were built during Gaudi’s lifetime. Photo: Lluis Gene/AFP

Some local opposition

Nominated chief architect of the project in 2012, Faulí took over at the head of a team of 27 architects and more than 100 builders.

Today, there are five architects and some 16 builders working to finish the Sagrada Familia.

“It is a lot of responsibility because it’s an iconic project, which many people have an opinion about,” says Faulí.

Building such a vast monument which draws huge numbers of visitors is not welcomed by everyone, with some arguing that the hoards of visiting tourists are destroying the area.

Many also oppose plans to build an enormous staircase leading up to the main entrance, the construction of which will involve the demolition of several buildings, forcing hundreds to relocate.

“My life is here and they want to throw me out,” says one sign on a balcony near the Sagrada Familia.

Faulí said he understands their concerns and wants to find “fair solutions” through dialogue.

And if he could ask Gaudi one question? Faulí pauses to reflect for a few moments.

“I would ask him about his underlying intentions and what feelings he wanted to communicate through his architecture,” he says.