Spain is feeling the pinch of a drop in visitors, especially from Britain, its main source of tourists, as the recession leads northern European sunseekers to take their holidays at home this year or choose cheaper beach destinations like Egypt or Turkey.
The drop in the pound to near parity with the euro has fueled the decline in the number of British tourists, who account for one-quarter of all visitors to Spain, as it has made spending a few days in the sun at Mediterranean resorts like Torremolinos, Benidorm and Ibiza more expensive.
AdvertisementUsually during the height of the summer tourist season the main beach at Torremolinos on Spain's Costa del Sol is packed with sunseekers.
But despite the clear skies and soaring temperatures, row after row of sun beds this year lie empty.
Above the beach, business at the bars, restaurants and stores selling bright red souvenir flamenco dresses and Real Madrid jerseys that line the boardwalk is slow with many outdoor patios deserted. Some shops are closed for repairs.
"This is the worst I have ever seen it. There is no one on the beach," said Pedro Hervas who has sold freshly squeezed orange juice from a stand in the shape of a large orange installed on the boardwalk for the past two decades.
"If you came here last year at this time you would not be able to get around, there would be so many cars and people," the 57-year-old added as he pointed to the road and beach in front of his stand.
During the first half of the year Spain received 23.6 million foreign visitors, an 11.4 percent drop over the same time last year, according to ministry of tourism figures.
The number of British tourists fell 16.3 percent during the period to 6.1 million.
The government predicts the number of foreign visitors to the country during the summer, which it defines as July, August and September, will drop by 10 percent.
The tourists who are coming are spending less than in other years, adding to the financial pain of shop and hotel owners.
Robert Downey, a 57-year-old former Glasgow taxi driver who runs a pub with a seafaring theme that serves fish and chips in Torremolinos with his wife, said his business is down between 30 and 40 percent this year.
"People used to come in at 9 o'oclock at night and have four or five drinks. Now they are coming in at 10 o'clock and having just two or three drinks. Many people are worried," he said as he stood behind the counter of his empty bar.
Foreign visitors to Spain spent 20.9 billion euros (30.2 billion dollars) during the first six months of the year, a 7.6 percent drop over the same time in 2008, according to the tourism ministry.
Spain's tourist sector accounts for around 11 percent of all jobs and the decline in the number of foreign visitors comes as the country is in its steepest recession in decades following the collapse of its property market.
Last year the country lost its spot as the second-most visited destination in the world to the United States, according to the Madrid-based United Nations World Tourism Organization. France has long been the number one destination.
Tourists began trickling into Spain after the United Nations lifted its sanctions against the country and its right-wing dictator, General Francisco Franco, in 1950.
The trickle turned into a flood after the Franco regime in 1959 simplified the procedures for passport visas and customs controls in a bid to aid the development of the tourist sector.
The influx turned many seaside fishing villages that dotted Spain's coast into concrete jungles of tower blocks which drew millions of northern Europeans on package holidays.
Analysts say the dent in Spain's tourism business is also due to a long-tern shift away from these sort of sun and sea holiday packages which the country pioneered as people increasingly depend less on major tour operators and make their own independent bookings over the Internet.
Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero's Socialist government has responded by offering one billion euros to help the sector modernise its infrastructure as well as tax breaks and fee waivers for airlines and hotels.
It has also wants to seek out new markets and diversify its traditional sun and surf tourism by boosting its focus on urban and cultural tourism.
Spain's tourism promotion body has staged a series of "A Taste of Spain" events across Britain in recent months that showcase Spanish culture and food.
Despite the recent decline in visitors, Trevor Davis, the director of retail distribution at The Co-operative Travel, Britain's largest independent travel agency, does not think the British are starting to permanently turn away from the country as a holiday destination.
"Absolutely not. We fully anticipate Spain will bounce back when the pound strengthens," he said.
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