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Unrest in Egypt, Tunisia forces change in vacation plans

By Al Goodman, CNN
Large crowds looking for flights out of Egypt wait in the halls of Cairo International Airport on February 1, 2011.
Large crowds looking for flights out of Egypt wait in the halls of Cairo International Airport on February 1, 2011.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Spain is one of the top four tourist destinations
  • Thousands more tourists could be rerouted to Spain this year
  • The numbers could boost the Spanish economy
  • Hotel owners may have to agree to less expensive rates

Madrid, Spain (CNN) -- The political turmoil in Egypt and Tunisia has European tour operators scrambling to divert package tours to more stable destinations, and several thousand tourists have already been re-routed to beaches in Spain, a Spanish tourism industry official told CNN.

"We can't be happy about unfortunate circumstances elsewhere," said Rafael Gallego Nadal, president of the Spanish Federation of Travel Agency Associations. "But the increase (in tourists) has arrived at an important moment" as Spain recovers from a deep economic slump.

In addition to the few thousand extra British, German and Scandinavian holidaymakers who've already arrived in Spain's Canary Islands, predictions are there could be tens of thousands of additional vacationers by May, Gallego said.

For now, the seven-island Canaries archipelago, located in the Atlantic Ocean just west of Morocco, is the only part of Spain that can compete directly with Egypt and Tunisia for the beach vacation business in winter.

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But if the political uncertainty continues in North Africa into the spring and summer, the package tours diverted from those destinations to Spain's Mediterranean coast and islands could involve hundreds of thousands of additional tourists this year, Gallego said.

Tunisia's beaches have been a prime destination for French tourists, Gallego said, and some of them could be diverted to Spain's coasts by next summer as well.

Russian and Eastern European tourists who had holiday tours set for Egypt or Tunisia may instead go in greater numbers to Turkey, Gallego said, based on information that he said is making the rounds among tour operators and travel agencies.

Egypt had nearly 12 million international tourist arrivals in 2009, compared with nearly 7 million for Tunisia, and 52 million for Spain, which is among the world's top four tourist destinations, along with France, the United States and China, the United Nations World Tourism Organization reports.

Spain's Canary Islands had 11 million tourists, including foreigners and Spaniards, in 2010, a three percent increase over 2009. The extra tourists now diverted from Egypt and Tunisia are helping the Canaries to recover, said Gallego, who is based in Las Palmas on the Gran Canaria island.

But diverting package tours from North Africa to Spain or other locations is not always an instant maneuver.

A package tour in the Canary Islands costs about 30 percent more than a similar beach holiday in Egypt or Tunisia, Gallego said.

So hard-fought negotiations over prices have ensued, in which the Spanish hotel operators may agree to a lower price which still turns out to be more than the tour operator and individual tourist were going to pay in Egypt or Tunisia, Gallego said.

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