On Message: Strike threat is another Spanish own goal

On Message: PR Week editor Danny Rogers on marketing and branding

The threat of strikes by Spanish air traffic contollers could tip the country’s tourism business into terminal decline, says Danny Rogers

For a nation of such gifted footballers it is ironic how often the Spanish shoot themselves in the foot from a tourism perspective.

Just as things were looking up this summer, we hear of probable strike action by Spanish air traffic controllers, which is set to bring airports to a standstill right at the peak of the tourism season later this month.

Spain welcomed 52 million foreign tourists last year, five million fewer than in 2008, representing a fall of 8.7%. 2008 was, in turn, two million fewer than in 2007. And 2010 could be worse again.

The decline is partly due to the global recession, which has affected many destinations. But Spain has been particularly badly hit because it is so heavily reliant on UK travellers, who have been also been hit with a dramatically weakened pound against the euro since 2008.

Indeed, despite being the our traditional favourite holiday destination, UK tourism numbers to Spain fell to 14 million last year from 15.8 million, an 11% drop.

And it has become obvious in many resorts. British visitors are thinner on the ground, and those loyalists are often heard grumbling about the rising costs.

The marketers within Spanish tourism are rightly concerned. Earlier this year the Spanish Tourist Office launched a €40m marketing campaign called ‘I need Spain’ which sought to position the nation as ‘more than a beach sun destination, focusing on cultural attractions’. The STO also hired a new PR agency, Lotus UK, in April.

While the campaign is a worthy one – quite understandably promoting cultural gems in the north such as Barcelona and San Sebastian – the harsh reality is that the vast majority of Brits choose Spain because it has traditionally been a trouble-free beach holiday: the nation’s biggest advantages to UK tourists have been a glorious climate, short flight times, widespread understanding of English, low costs, and an efficient airport infrastructure.

But in recent years the latter two selling points have been severely eroded. Not only have the non-euro nations of Turkey, Morocco and Egypt been able to undercut Spanish resorts, but their tourism infrastructure has gradually caught up as well.

Fortunately for Spain the euro has weakened against Sterling of late. For late-booking Brits this summer, €1.2 to the pound looks a lot more attractive than the close-to-parity of early 2009.

But now the very real threat of major strike disruption is undermining Spain’s recovery. No wonder then that the main travel companies association – Exceltur – on Saturday urged air traffic controllers to accept a government offer of arbitration to avoid a strike.

Sensibly, Exceltur warned of economic ‘havoc’ should tourism be hit amid Spain’s many other acute economic problems. On a net basis Spain has the highest tourism revenues in the world and they comprise more than 10% of overall GDP.

The comparatively well-paid Spanish air traffic controllers may feel they have genuine grievance over shifts, but they must also recognise the delicate balance of their nation’s tourism success – and how their action could ultimately tip the mother country into (airport) terminal decline.

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