How Spain is 'spying' on foreign phone signals to count tourists

The Local Spain
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How Spain is 'spying' on foreign phone signals to count tourists
Spain's national stats body INE has emphasised that it is an experimental methodology and far from perfect. (Photo by LLUIS GENE / AFP)

Spain attracts millions of tourists every year, but few will know that their phones are now being tracked by the country's main stats body to know exactly which cities, towns and villages they are visiting.


Spain is widely known as one of the world's popular tourist destinations, a democratic country which is safe for visitors and offers a wide array of culture, nature, gastronomy and laidback living.

What you might not have known is that the Spanish government now uses foreign phone signals to keep track of how many people are visiting each Spanish municipality, and even where they come from.


Is this spying? Perhaps, although it's no different from the thousands of websites and apps that do the same as well as an increasing number of governments that also use location data tracking. For example, Google Maps tracks phone signals to know where there are traffic jams and in turn show it to your on your mobile in red. 

The Spanish press has described this tourist tracker tool as an 'experimental stat' collected by Spain's National Institute of Statistics (INE) that involves measuring the volume of foreign tourists in a certain place by tracking the location of their mobile phone as a reference.

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It not only allows the Spanish government to see where the tourist has come from, but also where they've been and even how long they stayed, down to the municipal level.


If we take the case of Málaga, for example, using phone signals we can see that in January 2023, 305,292 foreign tourists had been 'located' in the southern city, as well as 642,000 in Barcelona and 484,000 in Madrid.

British, French, German, Dutch, Swedes and Norwegian holidaymakers made up the majority but the phone data also tells us that there were 215 Iranians in Málaga and 31 people from Uzbekistan.

And the data can be quite specific, with startlingly accurate numbers for small towns too. In Cartajima, a tiny village of 250 people in Málaga province, there were 41 foreigners who visited in January, and 331 in Monda, where phone data tells us the majority were Dutch.

You can access the tool and explore by region, province and municipality here.

Below we have an illustrated example for Valencia province, where we can see there were almost 22,000 Dutch tourists in the region in January, over 20,000 French and around 16,000 Italians.

READ ALSO: EXPLAINED: The new tourism tax in Spain’s Valencia region

A breakdown of the foreign tourists in Valencia in January 2023. Photo: INE.

The methodology

Spain's stats body INE explains that "the source of information is the aggregated data provided by the three large mobile phone operators in Spain, through the exploitation of the positioning of SIM card phones of foreign operators detected in our country."

INE has emphasised that it is an experimental methodology and far from perfect.

For example, if one same tourist has two mobile phones, he or she would count as two people in he data, even if it is only one. The opposite can also happen, meaning that a foreign tourist travelling without a mobile phone would not be detected and, therefore, would not be counted in this statistic. It is a useful tool for gaging rough tourists numbers, however.


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