With a record 18 million people visiting last year, Spain is by far the most popular foreign destination for UK holidaymakers. But as the country “fills up” with tourists – picking a package deal to the Costa del Sol or the Balearics over Tunisia, Egypt or Turkey – prices look set to increase.
Much of the rise in visitor numbers has been caused by ongoing security concerns over travel to north Africa and Turkey. Travel to Turkey suffered last year due to a failed military coup and from 2015 until July this year – when the Foreign Office updated its travel advice – British tourists were warned not to travel to Tunisia, following a terrorist attack on a beach in Sousse that killed 38 people.
In February, travel market analysts GfK reported a record number of British tourists had visited Spain in 2016, rising by 12% to 17.8 million people. At the time, early bookings for summer 2017 were already up 16%.
On Tuesday, Thomas Cook chief executive Peter Fankhauser told the BBC that in Spain “we have not enough beds for all the demand”, adding that he expected the price of a Spanish holiday to rise by up to 10% next year, as a result of the destination’s surge in popularity, combined with the weak pound.
Other industry experts agree. John Lucas, e-commerce director at loveholidays.com, said demand for summer 2018 was already higher than this time last year, with a growing number of people taking advantage of early-booking deals.
“Spain was very busy this year, so a lot of tourists would have missed out on the best hotels, best rooms or their first-choice properties,” he said. “What we’re seeing now is a huge interest in summer 2018, and that’s one of the first influencers of price. If the demand comes early, the hoteliers will be happy to hold their line as we get closer to next summer.”
Alexander Göransson, lead analyst at Euromonitor International said that it would expect accommodation prices in Spain to continue to increase in 2018, as a result of the Spanish economy improving, leading to an increase in demand from domestic visitors.
“There are indications that hoteliers in Spain are moving away from block bookings with tour operators, preferring to sell rooms directly to independent travellers, who they can charge more,” he said. “The current increased demand has given them the confidence to do this.”
Göransson added that although demand for accommodation will be high in 2018, putting upward pressure on prices, increased demand for travel to Spain could mean flight prices drop as airlines compete to lure passengers, helping keep overall package prices down.
“Aircraft have the advantage over hotels in that they can be diverted to where current demand is,” he said. “According to our industry sources, airlines are shifting capacity from the eastern Mediterranean to the Iberian peninsula. This increase in capacity and thus falling prices allows tour operators to offset part of the increased accommodation costs.”
Wayne Perks, managing director of Teletext Holidays, said that although capacity issues in mainland Spain and the Balearics are causing prices in peak season to rise, travel to Turkey is also looking more buoyant.
“Turkey has had a stronger summer than expected and predictions are that 2018 will see it rise to previous levels of popularity if there are no further issues,” he said. “This will mean that the Spanish hoteliers may have to revise their pricing to compete with the value that Turkey will undoubtedly offer.”
This could also be the case with Tunisia. In July, the Foreign Office revised its travel advice for the country, meaning tour companies can resume trips there. Thomas Cook has begun selling holidays there again, with trips starting from February 2018.
According to Euromonitor, tourists would be expected to drift back to north Africa and the eastern Mediterranean if they become more stable.
“The lack of demand has put downward pressure on prices, which could make them more appealing to price-sensitive consumers,” said Göransson. “This, again, would be more relevant if sterling remains weak, which it is likely to do as Brexit negotiations appear far from concluded.”
British tourists are set to find trips to Mallorca and Ibiza more expensive as a law placing a cap on the number of hotel beds and stricter rules governing holiday rentals are introduced.
The Balearic Islands’ government has introduced the restrictions in an effort to appease local residents, who have been complaining that they are being priced out of the rental market by holidaymakers.
New rules will ban flat owners from renting their apartments via websites such as Airbnb and Homeaway unless they obtain a special licence to do so. Owners face fines of up to €400,000 (£361,000) if they break the law, and the websites face the same fine for letting people advertise without a valid licence number.
The new law introduces a cap of 623,624 beds that can be used for tourists, and there are plans to cut that by 120,000 over the next few years. Almost 70% of the beds assigned will be in Mallorca and more than half will be in hotels.
There will be no new licences issued for the next year under the plan, which the left-wing coalition government claims will make tourism more sustainable. But critics say the law is confusing and will take a toll on the local economy.
Airbnb users condemned the move, saying it would force people to stay at larger hotel chains rather than renting flats from private owners. “So-called progressive political parties are ironically banning social renting to hand over everything to big hotel chains,” read one comment on Foro Vacacional, a Spanish online forum for holiday rental professionals, which takes sponsorship from Airbnb and Homeaway.
Not all tourists count getting drunk before noon and desecrating a local monument or two as top priority for a break away, but those that do have come to represent the masses in the cities where they let loose.
And last week, in Barcelona, vigilantes slashed the tyres of an open-top bus and spray-painted across its windscreen “El Turisme Mata Els Barris”: Catalan for “Tourism Kills Neighbourhoods.”
The message is clear: these cities are buckling under pressure. What to do about it is less obvious. In tourists and residents’ battle for supremacy of shared spaces, local authorities are uncomfortably in the middle. The tourism and travel sector is one of the largest employers in the world, with one new job created for every 30 new visitors to a destination – but at what cost to locals’ quality of life?
Xavier Font, a professor of sustainability marketing at the University of Surrey, says cities tend to ask that question when it is already too late. “You cannot wait until tourists arrive to give them a code of conduct.”
It won’t work, anyway. Attempts to influence individuals’ behaviour are futile, even counterproductive, says Font. “That attitude of ‘what happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas’ doesn’t just apply to Vegas anymore. When we go on holiday, we’re selfish.”
As a consultant for national tourism boards, industry associations and businesses, Font asks not how do we change tourists’ behaviour, but how do we change tourism so as to manage its impact. If it is to be made better, more sustainable, less of a burden on cities and the people who live in them year-round, the work should have begun well before visitors have bought their tickets.
The World Economic Forum recorded 1.2 billion international arrivals last year – 46 million more than in 2015, and increases are predicted for the coming decade, prompting the UN to designate 2017 the International Year of Sustainable Tourism for Development. More people are travelling than ever before, and lower barriers to entry and falling costs means they are doing so for shorter periods.
The rise of “city breaks” – 48-hour bursts of foreign cultures, easier on the pocket and annual leave balance – has increased tourist numbers, but not their geographic spread. The same attractions have been used to market cities such as Paris, Barcelona and Venice for decades, and visitors use the same infrastructure as residents to reach them. “Too many people do the same thing at the exact same time,” says Font. “For locals, the city no longer belongs to them.”
Compounding the problem is Airbnb, which, like credit cards and mobile roaming, has made tourists more casual in their approach to international travel, but added to residents’ headaches. Landlords stand to earn more from renting their properties to tourists than they do to permanent tenants. Those who share their apartment blocks with Airbnb hosts have been incredulous, says Font: “‘No longer do we have to share the streets with tourists, we have to share our own buildings?’ We get residents saying, ‘I don’t want my neighbourhood to become like the city centre.’”
In Barcelona, Font’s home city, the council has Airbnb in the sights of its crackdown on unlicensed holiday rentals, and doubled its team of inspectors to 40 in June. Over the 25 years since it hosted the 1992 Olympic Games, the city has experienced steady growth in tourist numbers, to an estimated annual total of 30 million. Its cruise port is the busiest in Europe; its airport, the second-fastest growing.
Consequentially, it has become the poster city for how a place can “groan under the weight of its popularity”, as Font puts it. He was commissioned by the city of Barcelona to explore how it might best promote sustainable development, and his findings – published in the Journal of Sustainable Tourism in April – have been incorporated in part into its 2020 strategic plan.
It shows that Barcelona has moved past the point of simply complaining about its troubles with tourists, says Font, and is “starting to do something about it”. One course of action is widening what the city calls the “tourism spectrum … to diversify the image and practices of visitors to the city”.
Currently, tourists’ “intensity and volume” is very unequally dispersed; it is hoped that a greater range of them, with different motives, priorities and interests, will ease the congestion around the main attractions.
This starts with marketing, says Font, who notes that Amsterdam has started advising visitors to seek accommodation outside of the city centre on its official website. “That takes some balls, really, to do that. But only so many people will look at the website, and it means they can say to their residents they’re doing all they can [to ease congestion].”
Another beleaguered city, Venice, has employed a similar strategy as part of #EnjoyRespectVenezia, a new campaign launched last month following a protest against the tourism industry by 2,000 residents. Translated into 10 languages, it publicises fines of up to €500 for picnicking in public, swimming in canals, even lingering too long on bridges.
But it also proposes a better way it is calling “detourism”: sustainable travel tips and alternative itineraries for exploring an authentic Venice, off the paths beaten by the 28 million visitors who flock there each year.
A greater variety of guidance for prospective visitors – ideas for what to do in off-peak seasons, for example, or outside of the city centre – can have the effect of diverting them from already saturated landmarks, or discouraging short breaks away in the first place. Longer stays ease the pressure, says Font. “If you go to Paris for two days, you’re going to go to the Eiffel Tower. If you go for two weeks, you’re not going to go to the Eiffel tower 14 times.”
Similarly, repeat visitors have a better sense of the culture. “We should be asking how do we get tourists to come back, not how to get them to come for the first time. If they’re coming for the fifth time, it is much easier to integrate their behaviour with ours.”
Local governments can foster this sustainable activity by giving preference to responsible operators, and even high-paying consumers. Font says cities could stand to be more selective about the tourists they try to attract when the current metric for marketing success is how many there are, and how far they’ve come. “You’re thinking, ‘yeah, but at what cost …’”
He points to unpublished data from the Barcelona Tourist Board that prioritises Japanese tourists for spending an average of €40 more per day than French tourists – a comparison that fails to take into account their bigger carbon footprint. French tourists are also more likely to be repeat visitors that come at off-peak times, buy local produce, and spread out to less crowded parts of the city – all productive steps towards more sustainable tourism, and more peaceful relations with residents.
But part of the path forward is factoring in tourists as a part of urban life, and even embracing them – a hard ask at a time when they are in many places public enemy number one. When it comes to instigating the necessary cultural shift, authorities’ abilities are limited.
Catalan authorities once ran a television ad campaign encouraging locals to tolerate tourists, says Font, paraphrasing its takeaway message as: “Even if you don’t like them a lot, they come here to spend money.” But it had diminishing returns over time as residents decided that it was not their responsibility to welcome the group doing such damage to their quality of life.
Underpinning Barcelona’s new strategy to 2020 is the understanding that tourism is “an inherent and constituent part” of the city, not an alien phenomenon: “Tourists do not have to be considered passive players … but rather as visitors with rights and duties.”
Everyone has a part to play in facilitating that change of perspective, says Font: tourists, cities, residents and operators. But everyone stands to benefit, too.
As a boy in Barcelona, he would observe belligerent visitors overwhelm his city, drinking at inappropriate times of day, dressed in sombreros. When they made an effort to speak Spanish and try local cuisine (“rather than asking for bangers and mash”), he recalls locals being more receptive.
“When tourists dress differently to us, eat differently, and are active at different times of the day,” he says, “we resent them much, much more.”
“We don’t ever stop working, not to eat or even to go to the toilet,” says Carolina Martín, a hotel chambermaid in Seville, southern Spain. “We’re the invisibles of the hotel, the last in line and the worst paid. When we first started telling hotel clients what was going on, they were shocked – they’d never spoken to a chambermaid before.”
The consternation concerns a level of exploitation that Spanish trade unions describe as semi-slavery, mainly due to outsourcing. But Spain’s estimated 100,000 chambermaids are fighting back and have used social media to organise themselves as Las Kellys, a play on las que limpian, the women who clean. Their slogan: get organised if you don’t want them to organise you.
Under labour reforms passed by the rightwing Popular party government, the cleaners have seen their wages cut by as much as 40% and their workload increased as hotels outsource their jobs to agencies.
“Before the law was changed, for any outsourcing to be legal the companies had to offer better conditions than those laid out in the convenio [the regional sector agreement],” says Isabel Cruz of Las Kellys in Barcelona. “Under the reform, a company agreement no longer needed to be better, and hotel chains saw an opportunity to cut costs. By outsourcing they no longer had to hire and fire, or pay sick leave or maternity leave.”
Under most convenios, the women are paid €1,200 (about £1,050) a month for a 40-hour week. Cruz explains that, while the outsourced contracts often appear to offer the same conditions, there is a catch: while the contracts specify a rate per six-hour shift, they also specify how many rooms have to be done in that time, on average between 25 and 30, which is not humanly possible. As a result, the women put in unpaid overtime in order to meet their quota, bringing their hourly rate down to €3 or €4.
“If the women stick to their hours and don’t meet their room quota, they’re sacked. Most of the contracts are short-term, so they’re simply not renewed and the woman is blacklisted,” Cruz says.
“We have to do 25 to 30 rooms in six hours,” says Yolanda García, a Kelly in the resort of Benidorm. “But many rooms have four beds in peak season, and this means making up to 85 beds. When they put in extra beds for children they charge a supplement, but we get paid the same. We calculate that in many cases women are being paid €0.89 a room.”
“All the outsourced contracts are for 32 hours, not 40,” says Paqui Martínez, 54, a chambermaid in Mallorca for 11 years. “So they earn €700 to €800 for the same amount of work.”
The groups, which picket offending hotels and organise meetings to raise public awareness, are demanding an end to outsourcing and that all hotels adhere to the convenios. They complain that they receive little support from trade unions. “It doesn’t help that very often in hotels your union representative is also your immediate boss,” says García.
Fear is a big factor, García says. “A lot of the workers are Latin Americans and eastern Europeans, and they are more afraid than local women of demanding their rights. There are many single mothers, so we’re talking about a group who are vulnerable and easy to exploit.”
All the women complain of health problems, such as back pain and arthritis, and many say they only get through their shift on a diet of painkillers. The hoteliers refuse to recognise these conditions as work-related, they say. “In the long run the hoteliers aren’t doing themselves any favours, because it is not possible to maintain standards under these conditions,” García says.
No one from the Barcelona Tourist Consortium or the Barcelona Hotel Association was available for comment.
It is not as though the Spanish tourist industry is struggling. In 2016, a record 75 million people visited Spain, with even more forecast for this year, and hotel occupancy is also at a record.
Take the NH Hotels chain, which manages 131 hotels in Spain. According to its annual report, from 2014 to 2016 its profits in Spain rose by €76m, while the average daily room rate rose by 9.2%. And yet it was one of the first to embrace outsourcing, making hundreds of hotel workers redundant.
In a statement NH Hotels said that outsourcing was necessary to cope with fluctuating demand, adding that “the company takes all necessary means to guarantee the rights of outsourced workers and that companies that failed to comply would lose their contracts”.
Not all hoteliers outsource, however. “Chambermaids are a key part of the core business,” Anna Castán, manager of the four-star Hotel Barcelona Catedral, told a meeting of Las Kellys. “Outsourcing has destroyed working conditions.”
Yet there have been victories, notably in Seville, where women denounced an outsource company that for four years had been charging hotels €1,450 for a service for which they paid the women €601 on the grounds that they were trainees. The company was fined €2.6m.
“This summer we’re planning a campaign to name and shame hotels that employ people in inhumane conditions and also promote the ones that use good practices,” says Cruz. She adds that they are encouraging guests to add comments about working conditions in their reviews on TripAdvisor and similar sites.