Has tourism in Spain finally recovered after two years of the pandemic?

The Spanish tourism industry experienced devastating losses during the first two years of the pandemic - to businesses, livelihoods, and income, but could it finally be on the road to recovery this Easter?

Beach in Spain
Tourism in Spain is back, but not for unvaccinated non-EU people - at least for now. Photo: JAIME REINA / AFP

The Spanish tourism sector suffered greatly during the pandemic when foreign tourist numbers fell by over 80 percent in 2020. Then in 2021, the Spanish government revealed that the number of tourists who visited during the first six months of the year was the lowest since records began. 

Data looks promising as this week, the Secretary of State for Tourism, Fernando Valdés revealed that Spain is already the fourth most popular destination for tourists in the world so far this year after Mexico, the Dominican Republic and Greece.  But could the Spanish tourism market finally be back on track?

Valdés said that Spain has already recovered 87 percent of its pre-pandemic international flight reservations and that the islands of Ibiza, Mallorca and Tenerife are already seeing higher tourist numbers than those recorded during the Easter of 2019. 

Juan Molas, president of the Spanish Tourism Board added during his speech at the II edition of ‘Wake Up, Spain!’ (the Spanish Economic Forum) that occupancy was already back up 90 percent in many places across Spain this Thursday. 

The British are back

Despite Brexit and the drop in holidaymakers from the UK over the past two years due to travel bans, quarantines, testing and vaccination requirements, British tourists are back and bookings from UK visitors are already 12 percent above the figures from 2019.

In 2021, the French took the top spot in foreign tourist arrivals with 5.8 million visitors, but this year it looks like the British are set to reclaim their place.

According to Spain’s National Statistic Insitute (INE), so far this year (up until February, the latest data available), 5.6 million foreign visitors arrived in Spain. Of these, 941,718 are British, putting them once again at the top.

So far this year the Canary Islands are proving to be the most popular Spanish holiday destination for Britons.

Domestic tourism recovery 

Valdés commented that “Domestic tourism is performing even better than in the pre-pandemic levels, and this Easter domestic flights are already seven percent above those of 2019”.

According to data released from travel search engine Madrid, Barcelona, Mallorca, Tenerife and Seville are the five most popular destinations among Spanish tourists this Easter. 

Looking ahead to summer 2022

Valdés said that the summer season will depend on the duration of the war in Ukraine, but that it looks promising with “bookings for July and August showing a 73 percent recovery from 2019”. Valdés hopes that the measures adopted by European governments to stimulate spending and hold down inflation will help exceed that percentage.

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Barcelona to hand out €3,000 fines to tour guides with groups of more than 15

Barcelona City Council has approved new rules to limit the size of tour groups in the Old Town to just 15 people, in a bid to stop the overcrowding caused by tourists in the Catalan capital's city centre.

Barcelona to hand out €3,000 fines to tour guides with groups of more than 15

The Old Town or Ciutat Vella is one of the most-visited areas of Barcelona and includes well-known tourist areas such as the Gothic Quarter, Las Ramblas and El Born. Here, it’s not uncommon to see large tour groups, blocking up the narrow streets and stopping the flow of pedestrians.

The new restrictions were announced by the councillor of the Ciutat Vella district, Jordi Rabassa, and the councillor for Tourism and Creative Industries, Xavier Marcé and are to be put on public display to ensure all potential disagreements can be solved before the rules come into force, which could be as early as the end of July 2022.

While groups will be limited to 15 people within the Ciutat Vella, in the city’s other neighbourhoods, where streets are slightly wider and it’s not so crowded, up to 30 people will be allowed per group.

Barcelona City Council has also introduced restrictions on the number of tour groups that can enter certain areas at one time. For example, a maximum of eight tour groups will be allowed in the central Plaça Sant Jaume, where the Ayuntamiento is located, five groups will be permitted to enter the colonnaded Plaça Reial, while a limit of three groups can visit the squares around the old Santa María del Mar church in El Born.

This restriction will affect 13 different areas throughout the city.

The new rules will also introduce 24 one-way pedestrianised areas, where the concentration of tourists is even greater, in a bid to stop a bottleneck of people.

The aim is to make sure that streets are not clogged up by tourists, preventing locals from going about their daily life and accessing areas where they live, work, socialise and run errands. 

Those tour guides who do not comply with the new rules will be faced with fines of between €1,500 and €3,000.

Other rules which will apply to tour groups across the whole city include banning the use of megaphones and making sure that at least 50 percent of the street is left free for others to use.

Barcelona suffered from over-tourism before the Covid-19 pandemic began and in 2019 received a record number of visitors of almost 12 million. This summer has seen a huge increase in tourists after numbers dropped dramatically in 2020 and 2021, and hotel occupation is already at 100 percent for July and August.