Tourists flocking to Spain, but locals far from welcoming

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Barcelona day after van attack
The crowd on Barcelona's Las Ramblas the day after last Thursday's deadly van attack. Photo Credit: Dino Geromella/Shutterstock

Spain is experiencing a record-setting year in tourism and is the European destination du jour for U.S. travelers, according to travel sellers and tour operators. But that popularity has sparked a spate of anti-tourism protests that could ultimately make the country less attractive to prospective visitors.

The deadly van attack in Barcelona last Thursday, a terrorist act for which Islamic State claimed responsibility, could also hurt Spain tourism in the short term.

"Traveler sentiment is fickle, and it does not take many bad news stories to cause significant displacement," Tim Fairhurst, head of strategy and policy at the European Tour Operators Association, said in a statement. He was alluding to the uptick in anti-tourist vandalism and street demonstrations that have occurred in Barcelona, Majorca, Valencia and San Sebastian in recent weeks.

Last month, a sightseeing bus in Barcelona was attacked by masked assailants who slashed its tires and sprayed the message "tourism kills neighborhoods" on the windshield, the U.K.'s Independent reported

That incident came just days after a group of anti-tourism activists burst into a restaurant on Majorca and showered foreigners with confetti. In San Sebastian, "tourists go home" slogans have cropped up on the city's walls.

"The violent actions of a minority are not representative and should not prevent normal life continuing for residents and visitors and those who provide services to them," Fairhurst said.

The anti-tourism activism comes as Spain is experiencing a record year in tourism, with the number of visitors rising 12% in the first six months of the year, according to the National Statistics Institute, to 36.3 million. 

Steve Born, senior vice president of marketing for the Globus family of brands, said the company's bookings for Spain and Portugal are up 8% over last year.

Born cited great value, good air prices, a strong product range and a surge among travelers who had previously visited Italy as factors contributing to Spain's popularity.

Intrepid Group reported a 10% jump in Spain bookings compared with 2016.

Brian Sanchez, a Travel Leaders adviser in Menomonee Falls, Wis., said his agency has seen tremendous growth in trips to Barcelona in the last couple of years. 

Tourism represents approximately 11% of Spain's $1.3 trillion gross domestic product. But Fairhurst said the challenge of balancing the benefits of the visitor economy with the growing animosity toward visitors will not be easy to tackle.

"This is not a challenge that will be solved with easy sound bites and short-term fixes," he said. "It will require long-term strategic thinking. Too much demand is a good problem to have. Its solution will require imagination ... on the part of the community, policymakers and industry."

Germany, Italy, Ireland also in demand

According to the National Statistics Institute, Germany ranked second this year for visitor growth, up 10%, to 5.5 million, for the first half of 2016. Born said Globus is up 10% in Germany bookings across the Globus family of brands.

"That's a healthy rebound from 2016," he said. "Value, including airfares, and safety are also drivers for renewed growth to Germany."

Agents also reported seeing peak interest this year in Italy, Ireland, Iceland and Greece.

Kate Rosevear, owner of a Travel Leaders agency in Plymouth, Mich., said the agency's No. 1 Europe destination this year is Italy, followed by European river cruises and Greece. She said Spain and Ireland are also booking well. Rosevear attributed strong Europe bookings to aggressive airfares.

"I think that the vendors who are promoting rock-bottom airfares -- i.e. $299 roundtrip air with many of the river cruise lines -- are largely responsible for the incredible increase in business to this part of the world," Rosevear said. 

She added, "Couple low airfares with reasonable hotel rates and a fairly strong dollar against the euro or pound, and it has proven to be a magical formula to induce travelers to take their trip of a lifetime now and spend a delightful week or two abroad."

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