“I would sooner be a foreigner in Spain than in most countries. How easy it is to make friends in Spain!” – George Orwell
From the early days of Visigothic rule, during the medieval period, to today’s vibrant and ever-popular tourist destination, Spain can weave a striking tapestry of rich history. With its influences stretching across the oceans, Europe’s Southernmost territory has, itself, developed from a hotchpotch of various rules and cultures throughout the ages. If we are to focus on the successes of Spain as a tourist destination, it is important to take a brief look at the early history of this remarkable kingdom, and from where its many customs and influences originate.
Spain’s story begins around 200 BC, when it is initially under Roman rule. The Roman name for this nation is Hispania, hence the etymology of the word Espana can clearly be seen. We can then fast forward to the 6th century, when the Visigoth king, Euric, set about extending his territory Southwards from the Pyrenees mountain range. By the next century, Spain is under complete Visigoth rule, with its capital city of Toledo being situated in the centre of the country. Not long after the establishment of this kingdom, the Visigoths are driven from Toledo, and indeed, lose power to Arabic tribes who have made the short journey by sea from the Northern tip of Africa. The first stable period to speak of is under Umayyad rule, when Prince Abd-al-Rahman establishes Spain as a major Muslim civilisation. During this period, the Southern city of Cordoba becomes a formidable and revered city of the middle ages. The distinguished Mosque – La Mezquita – that was built under Abd-al-Rahman’s rule, still stands today, and although somewhat changed, since the Renaissance period, it remains a notable tourist attraction.
After much political and regional upheaval between Muslim and Christian forces, Spain had been conquered and reigned over by both Germanic and Moorish rulers, throughout the middle ages. Taking centuries for a major period of stability, It was as late as the 15th century that the long-awaited reconquest finally arrived, through the marriage of Catholic Monarchs, Isabella and Ferdinand. In 1492, the Moors were defeated with the fall of their final stronghold of Granada, and Spain was re-established as a Christian kingdom, albeit with much Moorish influence that survives to this day, particularly in architecture. Coinciding with the fall of Granada, we see the initial rise of the infamous Spanish Inquisition, during a time of religious intolerance where the persecution of Jews and Muslims was used to drive out or forcibly convert them to Catholicism. It is believed that approximately 3000 people were executed in the name of the Inquisition.
The reign of Ferdinand and Isabella led to the birth of a new Spain, one which went on to become a colonial empire. It is during this period of history that Spain’s linguistic and cultural legacy, particularly in South America, was initiated. Today, there are in excess of 500 million Spanish speakers, due to those first forays into new lands by the Kingdom of Spain and her people. Christopher Columbus is perhaps the most well-known figure of this age. In fact, his reaching of the Americas was around the same time as the fall of Granada, and the return to Christian rule. Notably, the revered Spanish Armada was birthed during this early-modern era; a fleet of ships that attempted an unsuccessful invasion of England. It is widely accepted that this period of Spain’s history is one of phenomenal success, a time when it was regarded to be Europe’s most powerful Kingdom, and indeed, a world power for well over a further century.
Looking towards more modern times and the dawn of a fledgling tourist destination, we initially see the Spanish civil war taking place between 1936 and 1939. It was in 1939 that General Franco, a dictator and conservative, took the title of: Caudillo of Spain – a military landowner who exercised political power through totalitarian authority; Spain was now a dictatorship. It wasn’t until 1975, after the death of Franco, that, backed by Spanish constitution, King Juan Carlos took the throne, and democracy was restored. The beginnings of a tourist industry could now begin to flourish, and flourish they did; today, Spain is ranked second in the world, in terms of being a foreign tourist destination. With millions of visitors in 2015, it was globally the third most-visited country.
Regarding the importance of tourism to Spain’s economy, the industry generates 11% of the country’s GDP, making it a major and important boon to Spanish society. As it stands, alongside some of Spain’s recent economic difficulties, tourism continues to flourish, and is therefore a precious and significantly vital commodity. Initially, it was General Franco, himself, who pioneered the tourism boom, by revoking the need to obtain a visa to enter the country. The devaluation of the peseta was also a contributing factor, driving down the cost for those wishing to visit Spain. Mass tourism was born, and with the upcoming advent of package holidays, Spain was in the driving seat, ready to cash in on its vast unspoiled coastlines, and bustling towns.
“Spain is Different”. This slogan was the original tag line, and utilised under Franco’s rule, to promote the country as a popular destination for holidays and breaks. It certainly proved to be successful giving rise to a 40% increase in visitors, taking the total to around 4 million. Success continued to rise at a phenomenal rate, and by 1975, foreign visitors numbered around 30 million. The peaceful fishing villages dotted along the lingering coastline were beginning to develop into family-friendly resorts, boosting local economies and further funding the rise of hotels and new resorts. One fishing village in particular enjoyed a staggering rise from what it was back then, to what it has become now. Benidorm was perhaps the original blueprint for developing a sleepy village into a renowned holiday mega-resort. It is a fantastic case study to take a look at, as one can almost trace the entire evolution of Spain’s tourist industry through this single location’s journey to the top.
In the 18th century, Benidorm, on the Eastern coast of Spain, was renowned for its fishermen who were regarded as the best in the country. Tuna was a particularly sought-after fish, and the success of the local fishing industry in supplying large amounts of it, made for a strong economy. This success further strengthened the village, when sailors and captains would set up base in Benidorm for the purposes of shipbuilding and repairs. With the decline of the local fishing industry in the 1950’s, the local authorities decided to focus on the development of tourism in the area. Firstly, avenues of small hotels were built, and native Spanish tourists began taking holidays there. This soon expanded to include holidaymakers from Britain, Germany, and Holland. Being a resort on the Costa Blanca, the most significant development that triggered Benidorm’s rise was the opening of Alicante airport in 1967.
Over the next ten years, modern jet airplanes were continually developed, enabling an increase in air traffic for leisure reasons. The affordability of taking a flight to another country was now within reach of many families, and with a local airport, Benidorm, and the Costa Blanca, was booming. In 1977, Benidorm set a record that still stands today, an astonishing 12 million visitors in one year. For a former fishing village, with a population of around 60,000, this figure was clearly a testament to the astounding success of the plans set in motion 20 years earlier. Today, Benidorm continues to welcome millions of tourists every year. It is home to countless high-rise hotels, one of which is the tallest in Europe. With a reputation for sunshine, on-the-beach fun, and affordable nightlife in its many bars and clubs, cabaret being a major attraction, it remains extremely popular with holidaymakers from various countries.
The various Costas, or coasts, of Spain have been an origin to many a holiday-destination search. Each one comprises a collection a resorts and cities, and usually a local airport. As well as Costa Blanca, which we have already taken a look at, such original growth was paralleled in the Costa Brava, a region that includes Barcelona, a major magnet for tourism in its own right. The area was earmarked for major development as a tourism hotspot in the 1950s. With the success of Benidorm in mind, many towns and villages on this Mediterranean coast were developed much like their Costa Blanca counterpart. Notably, these resorts were Tossa de Mar, Lloret de Mar, and Blanes. Served by Girona airport, built in 1965, the Costa Brava is another significant example of former fishing-industry-focused towns and villages changing direction to take advantage of the riches of tourism. In the early 2000s, budget airline, Ryanair, selected Girona as one of its major European hubs, greatly enhancing the amount of air traffic to the area.
Spain’s warm climate has played a major role in the success of its tourist industry. As well as the mainland, there are also the Balearic Islands of Majorca, Menorca, and Ibiza, which are all major tourist destinations. For those looking to take holidays in the cooler winter months, Spain can also offer the year-round warmth of the Canary Islands, an archipelago off Africa’s West coast. The Canaries’ triumph as a Spanish holiday destination began around the same time as the boom started in mainland Spain. Firstly with Franco’s plans to open the proverbial doors to tourists, and secondly, with the advent of modern air travel. The islands of Tenerife, Gran Canaria, and Lanzarote in particular took great advantage of the opportunities that the mainland was enjoying. A great success in their own right, these tiny islands successfully welcome approximately 9 million tourists each year, contributing to Spain’s continuously impressive tourist industry.
Although the major pull of Spain’s tourist industry is predominantly beach and resort destinations, marketed as package holidays, city breaks and cultural tours have grown in stature over the past 25 years. In 1992, the historic capital city of Catalonia – Barcelona, opened its doors to the world when it hosted the Olympic Games. The billions of dollars that the month-long event generated led to further development of the city and its infrastructure. The Olympic village was key to the city developing the area around the sea, which in turn facilitated many local hotels, that had previously been run-down, to be renovated and modernised. In effect, the games were a major factor in the unsurpassed growth of Barcelona as a city. Subsequently, it became one of Europe’s most visited cities, alongside London, Rome, and Paris. To this day, Barcelona’s location on the Costa Brava has contributed to the continuing growth of tourism in the region.
As we can see, from medieval times, to its modern day status as a tourist industry superpower, Spain has grown from feudal beginnings, into a major travel destination. It has overcome civil war and dictatorship, to become one of the planet’s biggest sociological influences. By utilising its natural beauty, developing its cities and coastline, and promoting its culture, Spain has ensured its economic evolution, which is still sustained to this day. In 2015, over 54 million foreign visitors entered Spanish territories. 30 million of these travellers came from the nearby countries of France, Germany, and the UK. The World Economic forum, in 2015, published the Travel and Tourism Competitive Index, in which Spain ranked number-one out of 141 countries of the world, with regard to the power of their respective tourism industries. Generally, the Spanish people, being mindful of the economic importance of visitors, provide a warm welcome to tourists and holidaymakers, on their shores. The deep history of the integration of different races and nationalities, coupled with the creation of various colonies and societies has influenced the Spaniards into becoming a tolerant, warm, and welcoming people. That alone is a good reason why so many people enjoy taking annual holidays in this beautiful and quite striking country, time and again.