Although historical sites and unique cultural features had always made Spain attractive to foreign visitors, the tourist boom that began in the mid-1950s was based primarily on the recreational assets of the Mediterranean seashore areas. The country had fewer than 1 million tourists in 1950, but the number rose steadily, reaching more than 34 million in 1973 and 50.5 million in 1987.
The tourist boom had a significant, and not wholly beneficial, impact on the Spanish economy. Though it was a welcome source of foreign exchange and created new employment opportunities, it also diverted capital investment and construction efforts away from more stable economic activities to a sector subject to seasonal fluctuations, the whims of fashion, and worldwide economic conditions.
Nonetheless, the importance of tourism to the Spanish economy was substantial. Net tourist receipts averaged about 5 percent of GDP in the early 1970s, but in 1987 that figure rose to almost 10 percent, as receipts rose to US$14.7 billion--more than enough to cover the country's merchandise trade deficit. On a net basis, Spain's tourist revenues were the highest in the world. The United States had higher gross revenues, but its tourist expenditures exceeded revenues by a considerable margin.
Spain's 50.5 million foreign visitors in 1987 constituted 12 percent more than had come in 1986. Most of them came from the EC, with France, Portugal, Britain, and West Germany leading the way. American tourists accounted for less than 2 percent of the total, but they spent more per person than their European counterparts making the United States the second source of tourist receipts after Britain. Tourism was projected to remain strong in 1988, with a 5 percent increase in visitors. Tourist sector spokespersons were more concerned about raising tourist spending, however, than with increasing the number of visitors. The average expenditure per foreign visitor increased only 2.4 percent in 1987.
The most popular resort areas were the Balearic Islands and the Mediterranean coastal areas. The Balearic Islands generally accounted for about 34 percent of the number of nights foreign tourists spent in Spain; the Costa Brava and the Costa Dorada, stretching from the French border through Barcelona to Tarragona, accounted for 22 percent; and the Costa del Sol and Costa de la Luz, extending from Almeria on the southern--or Mediterranean-- coast to Ayamonte on the Atlantic coast at the Portuguese border, accounted for 12 percent. The distant Canary Islands attracted 13 percent of Spain's foreign guests, and land-locked Madrid was host to 8 percent. Cultural festivals were instituted in Santander and Madrid in an effort to increase the attractiveness of these cities. The seaside resorts continued to dominate the tourist industry, however, despite considerable government effort to stimulate interest in visiting historical and cultural sites.
Although areas on the northern coast facing the Bay of Biscay were accessible to the rest of Europe and had good weather in the summer, when most Europeans and Americans took their vacations, their share of the tourist trade was only about 3 percent. San Sebastian was the center of the tourist industry on the Bay of Biscay, and nearby towns were also popular, but their allure was limited by tourist apprehensions over continuing political turbulence and violence in the Basque region.
Tourist centers farther to the west, on the Cantabrian coast and in Galicia, were not so commercially developed as the better known Basque or Mediterranean resorts. Accordingly, their appeal to tourists was their traditional Spanish flavor. They also provided visitors with less elaborate, but also less expensive, accommodations.
Like most nations dependent on tourist trade, Spain was concerned about the underutilization, and sometimes overutilization, of facilities that was caused by seasonal variation in weather. These variations caused marked differentials in monthly tourist revenues and international trade receipts. July and August were the most active months; February was the least active. Efforts were made to develop winter sports facilities in order to increase the number of tourists visiting Spain during the colder months; however, competition from France, Switzerland, and Austria, where snow conditions were more reliable, constituted a formidable obstacle to success in this area.
Tourism was recognized, even before World War II, as an important economic activity worthy of government support. A chain of official hotels, known as tourist inns (paradores), was initiated at historical sites in the 1920s during the Primo de Rivera regime, and it was extended during the postwar years. Tourist promotion was a function of the Ministry of Interior until 1951, when the Ministry of Information and Tourism was created. In the late 1980s, the Ministry of Transportation, Tourism, and Communications took on this responsibility. The National Tourist Company, a state-owned enterprise, was engaged in the construction of hotels and tourist complexes.
Tourist promotion encompassed such routine activities as advertising and distributing maps, information folders, and lists of accommodations and shops. In addition, tourist offices were maintained in major foreign cities in order to encourage, to advise, and to assist people planning visits to Spain. Within the country, tourist assistance was provided by a network of more than seventy local tourist information offices found in all major cities and sites of interest.
Although most tourist accommodations were privately owned and operated, there was considerable government supervision of the industry. All restaurants and hotels were inspected, classified, and controlled by the Ministry of Transportation, Tourism, and Communications. Prices for meals and accommodations were controlled, and establishments catering to tourists were required to maintain complaint books which were intended to help the ministry's inspectors identify any shortcomings. In addition, the government operated a number of accommodations. These establishments included the above-mentioned paradores, many of which were converted castles, palaces, or other buildings of historical or cultural interest. Government-operated inns (albergues) were maintained on highways away from larger cities and towns, and many areas had hostels (hosterias), which were government-operated restaurants featuring traditional regional dishes. The ministry also maintained a number of mountain lodges (refugios).
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