"Spain has a major image deficit as a shopping destination," said Angela Castano of Turespana, a body promoting Spain's brand, at this week's Fitur world tourism fair in Madrid.
A record 65 million foreigners visited Spain in 2014, according to the UN World Tourism Organisation's latest figures. Many plodded round its old cities and sprawled on its sunbaked shores — but they didn't spend as much in the shops as Spanish businesses would like.
Shopping is an essential part of a holiday for a growing number of tourists, according to a report last year by the Madrid-based organisation (UNWTO). That trend is being driven by growing hordes of visitors from emerging markets such as China, Russia and, in Spain's case, from Latin America.
Now Spanish companies are working to strengthen Spain's image as a shopping hub, not just a seaside destination where most visitors come in summer. The UNWTO ranks Spain as the world's third most popular tourist destination after France and the United States, and the second-biggest in terms of revenues. But it struggles to compete with them for shopping.
"A tourist here spends €400 ($452) on average" in the shops, said Luciano Ochoa, head of Innov Taxfree, a company that offers duty-free shopping to non-EU residents visiting Spain.
Of these visitors, Chinese visitors spend as much as €900 each in Spain, he said. But in Paris, the average Chinese tourist spends €1,500 on a visit.
Madrid and Barcelona are beaten by Paris for luxury goods and posh department stores, by Milan for fashion, and have nothing like London's Harrods for rich shoppers, experts say.
Spain is also penalized by its limited flight connections with Asia. Meanwhile the fall of the ruble last year drove a lot of sun-seeking Russians to cancel their holidays. On the upside, Spain is home to mid-range clothes stores such as Zara and Mango whose wares are cheaper here than abroad, said Castano.
Many shops are open on Sunday and late into the evening and shopkeepers are allowed to hold sales whenever they like, she added. In 2013, tourists spent nearly $1.2 trillion worldwide — some $230 billion more than before the global financial crisis hit in 2008.
Spanish shops are now making an effort to catch up with the tourists, said Pedro Vargas, head of international projects for the Forum of Renowned Spanish Brands, a business lobby.
Spain's best-known chain department store, the Corte Ingles, now mounts displays in English and reimburses sales tax to non-residents, he said. It has also broadened the range of fine foods for sale in its delicatessen, to compete with the likes of Selfridges food hall in London.
"The aim is to make tourists faithful to Spanish brands," said Vargas, "so they become trend-setters when they go back home."