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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FOCUS: Mass tourism returns to Barcelona – and with it debate

Visitors are once again jamming the narrow streets of Barcelona's Gothic quarter as global travel bounces back from the pandemic, reviving tensions over mass tourism in the Spanish port city.

FOCUS: Mass tourism returns to Barcelona - and with it debate

Hotel occupancy in the city rose in April, which included the Easter long weekend, to nearly 85 percent, close to its pre-pandemic levels, according to the Barcelona Hotel Guild.

“There are more and more cruise ships, more and more tourism, more and more massification,” said Marti Cuso, a high school biology teacher who has long campaigned against mass tourism invading the city centre.

“This has been a shock after two years of pandemic,” said Cuso, 32, who had hoped the city would use the pandemic pause to change its tourism model.

Cuso, who grew up in the Gothic quarter, said he enjoyed the calm that descended on the neighbourhood, which is normally flooded with tour groups visiting its mediaeval buildings.

After receiving a record of nearly 12 million visitors at its hotels and tourist apartments in 2019, arrivals plunged by 76.8 percent in 2020, mirroring declines across Europe.

“People reclaimed the squares, children played in the streets again,” said Cuso.

The pandemic also showed the dangers of having an “economic monoculture based on tourism,” he said.

“The majority of residents who worked in tourism found themselves out of work overnight,” said Cuso.

Tourist arrivals in Barcelona had risen steadily before the pandemic and the tourism sector accounted for around 15 percent of the economy of Spain’s second-largest city before the health crisis.

Tourists on bicycles listen to a tour guide at Plaza Real in Barcelona, on May 11, 2022. (Photo by LLUIS GENE / AFP)

‘Control the damage’

The boom in tourism sparked a backlash, with regular protests, including one in 2017 where vigilantes slashed the tyres of an open-top tourist bus and spray-painted its windshields.

Barcelona residents identified tourism as the city’s main problem in a poll carried out that year by city hall.

“We must change the model to reconcile the two worlds. We can’t have the tourists’ city on one side and the city of locals on the other,” Francesc Muñoz, who heads an Observatory studying Urbanisation at Barcelona’s Autonomous University, told AFP.

With terraces once again full of tourists drinking sangria, Barcelona’s leftist city hall said recently it plans fresh measures to tame the sector.

Access to the busiest squares could be restricted, and the circulation of tourist buses more tightly regulated.

Barcelona city hall has already cracked down on illegal listings on online rental firms like Airbnb and banned tour groups from entering the historic La Boqueria market during peak shopping times.

“Tourism is an important economic, social and cultural asset for Barcelona,” said Xavier Marcé, the city councillor in charge of tourism.

“We need to optimise the benefits and control the damage. This is the debate which all European cities are having,” he added.

Tourists eat a paella and drink sangría on Las Ramblas. Photo: Lluis Gené/AFP

‘Find a balance’

Marcé rejected the argument that the city did not use the two-year slump in arrivals due to the pandemic to change the city’s tourism model.

“Two years have not been lost. It is very difficult to solve the problems of tourism when there is no tourism,” he said.

Tour guide Eva Martí, 51, said she understands the concerns of residents, but believes formulas must be found to maintain an activity which provides a living to many locals.

“During this 13 years I have worked as a guide, it is harder and harder to show tourists around,” she said in a reference to measures such as rules limiting the size of tour groups to 15 people in some areas.

“We have to find a balance,” she added at a sun-drenched esplanade in the Gothic quarter before taking a tour group back to their cruise ship in Barcelona’s port.

Cuso, the anti-mass tourism campaigner, agreed with her.

“We are not asking for zero tourism. There will always be tourism, but we have to have a diversified city, where tourism coexists with other types of economic activity,” he said.