MADRID — Half a century after it pioneered the cheap “holiday-in-the-sun” package deal, Spain is seeking to upgrade its image by convincing the discerning and affluent tourist that it has much more to offer than just sun, sea and sangria.
Instead of overcrowded beaches in concrete jungles, tourist authorities want to put Spain’s lesser known attractions, including its strong home-grown gastronomic traditions, firmly on the tourist map, targeting in particular the upper end of the market.
Among the destinations being highlighted are the vineyards of the Rioja region, the futuristic Guggenheim Museum in the Basque city of Bilbao and the vast Donana national park, a UNESCO World Heritage site and home to rare wildlife.
“It is time to look for customers with high purchasing power because there is plenty to offer them,” said Jose Maria Rubio, the head of Spain’s Hotel and Catering Federation (FEHR).
A plummeting number of tourists to Spain has forced the shift in focus — the UN World Tourism Organisation says Spain lost its spot as the second-most visited country in the world to the United States last year — while tourism still plays a crucial part in the struggling Spanish economy.
Military dictator Francisco Franco first opened up Spain to foreign tourists in the late 1950s.
But his idea has seen Mediterranean fishing villages transformed into a mass of skyscrapers, fast-food outlets, bars and nightclubs that are now synonymous with the worst of mass tourism.
Spain is suffering from a “perceived loss of authenticity in its coastal destinations,” the tourism ministry concluded in its Horizon 2020 plan last year.
It must “develop new proposals to meet the new requirements of the market” and emphasize “qualitative rather than quantitative growth.”
Tourism accounts for about 11 percent of Spain’s jobs and gross domestic product, with the bulk of the industry’s income generated in the ageing resorts that extend along much of its Mediterranean coast.
But stiff competition from cheaper Mediterranean destinations such as Turkey, Croatia and Tunisia, the declining popularity of such package beach holidays and the economic crisis in its main markets of northern Europe have all combined to batter the sector.
Spain received 57.4 million visitors last year, a 2.6 percent drop from 2007 and the first fall since the current record-keeping system was introduced in 1995.
And in the first seven months of this year, tourist arrivals plunged 10.3 percent compared to the corresponding period in 2008.
The government has now moved to diversify the industry, to make it less focused on the summer season and on Spain’s coastal regions.
This summer it unveiled the “privilegespain” initiative aimed at creating “high-value products to promote Spain as a tourist destination capable of attracting and satisfying the most demanding travellers.”
The plan targets four countries — Britain, Germany, France and Italy — and seeks to attract both the elderly and families with young children, as well as gourmets, and anyone seeking “alternatives to the more traditional” tourist sites.
It has started with three destinations — the historic Moorish cities of Cadiz and Jerez in the southwest, the beautiful wine-growing region of La Rioja in the northeast, and the northern Basque Country, home of some of Spain’s best cuisine.
Work is underway to expand privilegespain to other areas, including Madrid and the rugged northwestern region of Galicia, where the cathedral of Santiago de Compostela is the final stop on an ancient pilgrimage route.
Rubio emphasized that tourist authorities were not seeking “to change the image of Spain from a sun and beach destination to a cultural destination.”
“Spain has more than 3,000 kilometres of coastline and this will remain a key factor” in its tourism promotion, he told AFP.
“It is more a question of completing the image of Spain with its culture, natural and historical attractions and gastronomy.”
Rubio is also heading another new initiative called “Saborear Espana” (“Tasting Spain”).
Backed by top chefs, it aims to “improve and diversify the international image of Spain, using food to increase its competitiveness in the global tourism market.”
Rubio said authorities were producing “gastromaps” of the country and organising gastronomic tours and other specific events to attract food lovers.
Despite the growing international recognition of Spanish cuisine, its gastronomic diversity is still relatively unknown overseas, he said.
“Spain is known for paella, gazpacho, tapas and little else, and yet if you stroll through the centre of any Spanish city you will see bars and restaurants offering gastronomic delights.”
There are already signs of a shift in Spain’s tourism dynamic. Figures released this month show stays at the country’s 93 Paradores — luxury hotels in converted castles, palaces and monasteries — were up around 2.0 percent this summer from the same time last year.
“It’s another sign that there’s light at the end of the tunnel” of the economic crisis, said the president of the Paradores association, Miguel Martinez.