Spain’s sharp rise in tourists still below pre-pandemic levels

The number of foreign tourists visiting Spain rose exponentially this summer as Covid-19 travel restrictions were lifted but arrivals remained below the level seen before the pandemic, new official figures show.

Tourists sunbathe at Playa de Palma in Palma de Mallorca. Last year only 31.1 million foreigners visited Spain, well below the 45 million expected by the government. (Photo by JAIME REINA / AFP)

Spain, the world’s second most visited country before the pandemic, welcomed 9.1 million foreigners in July, and 8.8 million in August, national statistics institute INE said.

That represents a 106.2 per cent increase in arrivals in July from the same month last year, and a 69.7 per cent jump in August from the same year-ago period, it added.

But the total number of arrivals during the two months –17.9 million – remained lower than the record 20 million seen in 2019 before the pandemic-related travel restrictions ravaged the global tourism industry.

Tourism Minister María Reyes Maroto called the arrival figures for the two peak holiday months “extraordinary”.

“We are facing an autumn without inflation and the uncertainty caused by the war” in Ukraine hurting the sector’s recovery “for now,” she added in a statement.

During the first eight months of the year Spain welcomed 48 million foreign tourists, equivalent to 83 per cent of its pre-pandemic level.

The largest number of visitors during the period were British, accounting for more than 10 million arrivals, followed by French, who made up seven million visits, and Germans, who accounted for 2.3 million.

In the same period, the most popular destinations were the northeastern region of Catalonia, the Balearic Isles, the Canary Islands and Andalusia in the south, the INE said.

Spain in 2019 hit a record for the seventh year in a row, welcoming a total of 83.5 million foreign tourists. Only France received more that year.

The number of foreign visitors plunged to 19 million the following year due to the pandemic.

Last year only 31.1 million foreigners visited Spain, well below the 45 million expected by the government.

Tourism accounts for some 12 per cent of Spain’s gross domestic output and the drop in arrivals hit the economy, the eurozone’s fourth largest, hard.

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10 percent of Spain’s free train travel tickets are used fraudulently

Spain's state-owned railway has offered free train travel on certain lines but some commuters are taking advantage of the rules.

10 percent of Spain's free train travel tickets are used fraudulently

Around a tenth of the free Media Distancia train tickets offered by Spain’s state-owned rail operator Renfe are being used fraudulently, according to Raquel Sánchez, Spain’s Minister of Transport, Mobility and Urban Agenda.

Speaking at the EU Council of Ministers in Brussels, Sánchez explained that some cheeky travellers are reserving a place that they then do not use, filling up carriages, reducing the number of available seats and leaving other commuters without a way of travelling. In total, the Minister suggested that this fraudulent practice has only affected 3 percent of the total 2.2 million free tickets issued so far (including all the different lines) because Cercanías trains don’t require specific seat reservations.

Spain’s free train travel offer came into force on September 1st and was originally due to end on December 31st 2022, but it has now been confirmed it will be extended until at least December 2023 when the measure’s economic and environmental impact will be evaluated. 

The offer is available on trains operated by the state-owned train network Renfe, including Cercanías, Rodalies (in Catalonia), and Media Distancia (local and medium-distance journeys).

Crucially, it’s only offered on special multi-journey tickets, not on single journeys or high-speed AVE trains. 

GUIDE: How to get free train tickets in Spain

But according to Sánchez around 640,000 Media Distancia free passes have been issued so far, which means around 64,000 people have been reserving seats that they ultimately do not use, and some even do it on several trains to give themselves greater travel flexibility.

READ ALSO: Spain’s free train tickets to continue throughout 2023

Now, it seems, the Spanish government have had enough of commuters taking advantage of their kindness and are introducing sanctions for fraudulent use of their free tickets. Punishments, something Sánchez told her European colleagues were a “necessary measure,” will now be levied against repeat offenders.


Crafty commuters who are caught making multiple reservations and not using them could have their free travel withdrawn or their deposit taken.

These punishments have been brought in, according to the Spanish government’s Official State Gazette, to discourage certain users who on “at least three occasions have not cancelled the formalised trip at least two hours in advance and do not make the trip.”

Standing room only?

As you might expect, the offer of free train travel has proven extremely popular across Spain, and in order to keep up with demand, Renfe are set to introduce limited standing space quotas of 10 percent on high-demand routes where specific seat reservations will not be available.