Spain reigns as sunseekers shun terrorism-hit Med resorts

Sunseekers are opting for “safer” destinations in Spain after recent terror attacks in other Mediterranean resorts.

Spain reigns as sunseekers shun terrorism-hit Med resorts
Photo: AFP

It's low season and the sun in Barcelona shines only timidly, but Noel Sheehan's cycling tours are doing a roaring trade as holiday-makers shun their usual Mediterranean tourism hotspots after a spate of jihadist attacks.

As the world's third tourism destination after France and the United States, Spain has already beaten records in the number of foreign visitors for three years in a row, and 2016 is expected to follow the same trend.

“I've been doing this for 16 years and 2015 was our best year,” Sheehan tells AFP in the office of his tour company, tucked away in a small, pedestrian alley in the picturesque Gothic quarter of this Mediterranean city – the most visited in Spain.

“We've been working well during winter too and we're receiving more calls to ask for information or bookings for the high season,” says the bearded Irishman as he prepares bikes for the next tour.

He adds that for some time now, Europeans have for a large part replaced Americans in his client list, thanks to the expansion of low-cost airlines and sporadic unrest in many Mediterranean countries.

'Don't go now'

Jihadist attacks on tourists in Tunisia last year and the IS-claimed October crash of a Russian plane which took off from the Egyptian resort of Sharm el-Sheikh, as well as a suicide bomb in Istanbul, have seen travellers shun these once-favoured vacation destinations.

People like Florian Grohe and Saskia Oetzmann, a young couple from Munich in Germany who had originally planned to go to Istanbul, but ended up in Barcelona.

“Our parents were saying all the time 'don't go now, don't go now, look for something else' and flights to Barcelona were cheaper,” said Oetzmann.

“We were not scared but we did not want them to worry and I am a big supporter of FC Barcelona, so it was a good choice as well,” added Grohe.

Oetzmann and Grohe are but a drop in the ocean of tourists in Spain. Some 68.1 million foreign travellers visited in 2015, nearly five percent more than the previous year.

And that number is expected to swell in 2016.

“Just in January, we've registered 25 percent more reservations for Spain than the previous year,” says Maria Sierra, spokeswoman for eDreams, one of the main European online travel agencies headquartered in Barcelona.

It's the same story for Anna Vives Begliomini, owner of Look Barcelona, which rents out luxury flats and guest houses on Barcelona's most expensive Paseo de Gracia street, where works by Spain's famed architect Antoni Gaudi abound.

“We're getting a lot of reservations in advance. At the end of the year, we had some of the places almost full for April, May or June,” she says, pointing also to the increasing number of Chinese and South Koreans coming to visit.

TUI notes Spain shift

And apart from the classic urban destinations of Barcelona and Madrid, tourist zones along Spain's sunny coasts are also doing well, particularly the Canary Islands off northwest Africa and the Balearic islands in the Mediterranean.

“We've had an increase in bookings particularly for the summer period,” says Manuel Valenzuela, deputy head of Catalonia Hotels, which has some 50 establishments across Spain and saw its turnover increase by 15 percent last year.

Even TUI, the world's biggest tourism group, has noted this shift to Spain on the back of jihadist attacks.

On Tuesday, chief executive Fritz Joussen said 2016 summer bookings in Turkey had dropped by 40 percent in the wake of a January suicide bombing in Istanbul that killed 11 German tourists.

“Our own hotels in destinations outside Turkey such as Spain and in particular the Canaries are benefitting from this shift in demand,” he said.

And Giovanni Cavalli, commercial director for theme park Port Aventura south of Barcelona, said he was expecting to get more tourists on the back of the Turkey attack.

“Turkey worked a lot with the Russian, German and British markets,” he says.

“I'm pretty sure that these tourists will be looking for a more peaceful place, and this place is Spain.”

By Daniel Bosque / AFP

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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.