Skip to main content
Part of complete coverage on

Spain's tourism boom keeps troubled country partying

By Al Goodman, CNN
updated 11:02 AM EDT, Wed July 10, 2013
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Spain's economic crisis is in its sixth straight year yet tourism, worth 11% of GDP, is holding its own
  • Spain's tourism sector has recovered from a 9% drop at the height of the crisis in 2009
  • In 2012 it was back to pre-crisis levels of 57.7 million international visitors

Madrid (CNN) -- Summer could not have come soon enough for Lloret de Mar, a tourist resort north of Barcelona that is brimming with young travelers from Britain, Germany, France and Russia.

By day, they flock to the main beach with its steep descent into the Mediterranean, and by night they crowd the streets lined with clubs called Londoner, Hot Spot or Zoo.

Read more: The human cost of Spain's financial crisis

It is a scene repeated up and down Spain's extensive coastline along the Mediterranean, the Atlantic and its famous archipelagos, the Balearic and Canary Islands.

Spain's economic crisis is in its sixth straight year yet tourism, worth 11% of GDP, is holding its own, one of the few bright spots on a bleak horizon.

Spain's jobless youth head abroad
Man hands out resume on Madrid street
Spain struggles with record unemployment

Summer, of course, is high season for tourism in Spain. The country is the world's fourth-largest tourist destination, behind France, the U.S., and China, according to the UN's World Tourism Organization, based in Madrid.

Spain's tourism sector has recovered from a 9% drop -- a loss of five million tourists -- at the height of the crisis in 2009. Last year, it was back to pre-crisis levels of 57.7 million international visitors.

Interactive: Is your nation fair?

In part, due to an aggressive search for new markets, since the crisis not only forced Spaniards to cut back on vacations, but also slowed growth among British and German tourists, two of the traditional groups of visitors.

Climent Guitart can tell you about that. He owns eight hotels in Lloret de Mar, and said, "The last three years, we have tripled, multiplied by three, the number of Russians that come to this area."

Like Katerina Kharina and her friend, both choreographers from western Russia, whom we met on the beach.

"Here it's very different," Kharina said. "There's no crisis in Russia. Here it's cheap. Russians like Spain."

And Spaniards like Lidia Gonzalez may thank the Russians for her new career as a maid at one of Guitart's hotels.

A mother of two, the crisis forced Gonzalez out of her own hair salon business.

Spain's next threat: Losing 20% of its economy

For months, she was among the 27% of Spanairds who are unemployed, until the hotel hired her for the summer.

"At last this job came up and there was relief for the whole family, to be able to pay some of our bills," said Gonzalez, taking a break from cleaning a room.

She and many others have contracts just for the summer high season, and many worry what comes next.

Some experts worry, too, about the tourism industry's future. They say that Spain's tourism formula has been the same for decades -- sun and sand. But with the economic crisis, there are growing calls for that to change.

Read more: Cyprus for Easter? Just pack extra cash

A recent study by the Barcelona-based business school ESADE warns the country's beach towns lack "strategic improvement plans," and "follow a stagnated tourism model."

The report said 57% of the country's coastal towns offer less than five square meters of beach per tourist and remain highly seasonal, with 85% occupancy in August but barely 35% outside of the summer months. It called for new tourism products.

Guitart's company is already pushing innovation, trying to go upscale with a five-star hotel and casino in Lloret de Mar, while also maintaining some of its more typical mass tourism hotels.

A generation on the scrap heap: Can Europe be saved?

"We think that the clientele is diversifying a lot and in this area, I think we need a hotel with better standards, better quality," Guitart said.

Breaking away from the popular tourism hotel model may be the future for Spain's industry, but it won't be easy. Lloret de Mar, like many others in Spain, still caters to mass tourism.

Just ask the young foreigners on the beach by day and in the clubs by night.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
Marketplace Europe
updated 11:31 AM EST, Thu January 16, 2014
Marketplace Europe visits Latvia to see how the Baltic country has made its transition to the Euro from the Lat.
updated 11:30 AM EST, Thu January 16, 2014
CNN's Nina Dos Santos visits Latvia to speak to the country's outgoing Prime Minister and the prospects for the eurozone's 18th member.
updated 11:40 AM EST, Thu January 2, 2014
Malta is the gateway to Europe and on the frontline of the immigration flows. Isa Soares reports from a detention center on the Mediterranean island.
updated 11:41 AM EST, Thu January 2, 2014
CNN's Isa Soares speaks with people on the streets of Valletta who say their country can't cope with more migrants from Africa and the Middle East.
updated 5:06 AM EST, Thu January 9, 2014
Malta cannot afford to continue supporting migrants from war-torn countries in its over-crowded detention camps, the country's foreign minister has told CNN.
updated 4:23 PM EST, Thu December 26, 2013
Slow recoveries, bailouts, and youth unemployment. Richard Quest speaks to Europe's top CEOs about the issues of 2013.
updated 4:14 PM EST, Thu December 26, 2013
CNN's Richard Quest speaks to economist Bob Parker about defining moments of 2013 and about what to expect in 2014.
updated 1:15 PM EST, Thu December 5, 2013
Estonia is setting the pace for other European nations with a thriving economy and its tech industry, according to the Baltic nation's leader.
updated 2:03 PM EST, Thu December 5, 2013
The Baltic nation of Estonia is developing its oil shale energy reserves in a bid to become energy self-sufficient.
updated 4:25 AM EST, Fri November 29, 2013
Europe must stop being nationalistic if it wants to help a lost generation of workers, the regional boss of U.S. conglomerate General Electric says.
updated 12:06 PM EST, Thu November 14, 2013
Peer at the windows and you'll spot big colorful chairs, plastic plants and a huge bed, but this is no department store.
updated 5:06 AM EST, Tue November 19, 2013
There once was a time, many years ago, when the sounds of bagpipes struck fear into the stomachs of Englishmen.
updated 6:16 AM EST, Mon November 11, 2013
Greece is on the way to economic recovery as investor faith returns to the recession-ridden eurozone nation, an executive at Greece's largest bank has told CNN.
updated 7:00 AM EST, Fri November 8, 2013
Could Greece's famous spice help the country's farmers through a four-year long economic crisis.
updated 9:07 AM EDT, Fri November 1, 2013
One of the masterminds behind the euro says Europe would have suffered a far worse fate if the single currency had never been created.
updated 1:41 PM EDT, Thu October 31, 2013
Nina Dos Santos visits the Dutch city where the European treaty carrying the city's name came into force 20 years ago.
updated 11:10 AM EDT, Fri October 25, 2013
As Spain continues its drive to slash budgets and cut spending, one of the nation's favorite pastimes is under threat as ministers look for ways to boost productivity.
updated 12:17 PM EDT, Thu October 24, 2013
The high commissioner of Brand Spain talks about getting the country back on its fee and attracting business.
ADVERTISEMENT