|By Sinikka Tarvainen, dpa,
BerlinMcClatchy-Tribune Regional News
Feb. 13, 2013--MADRID -- Tourism had long been one of the pillars of the Spanish economy, but now that the country is grappling with a deep economic crisis, it has become the main ray of hope.
"Tourism is being looked at a bit as if it were the saving axis of the economy," Andres Encinas, president of the Spanish Association of Tourism Professionals (AEPT), told dpa.
Spain's economic crisis knocked down the construction sector, which had a weight approximately equivalent to tourism, contributing more than 10 per cent of gross domestic product.
The crisis has also affected a wide range of other sectors, with the economy expected to shrink by more than 1 per cent this year.
The crisis has not spared the tourism industry, where more than 50,000 jobs were destroyed in 2012, according to official figures.
But the sector still employs nearly 2 million people, 11.5 per cent of the workforce. It has an unemployment rate of only 19.8 per cent, compared to a general national average of 26.02 per cent.
Tourism contributes 11 per cent of Spain's GDP, Encinas notes, describing it as a "tremendously important source of employment."
The number of foreign tourists visiting Spain grew by 3 per cent to 57.9 million people in 2012, bringing tourism back to pre-crisis levels, government figures show.
Not only did the number of foreign visitors increase, but they spent nearly 56 billion euros (74.9 billion dollars), more than ever before.
Spain is the world's top tourist destination after France, the United States and China, the United Nations World Tourism Organization (UNWTO) said in 2011.
The recent increase in the number of tourists is explained partly by the recovery of the British market, traditionally Spain's biggest, alongside Germany.
An increase in the number of Scandinavian tourists has, meanwhile, made up for stagnation in the German market and a contraction in Italy and Portugal, which have been hit hard by the euro crisis, according to the association of tourism companies Exceltur.
The number of Russian tourists -- known for their liberal spending habits -- has doubled in two years, surpassing the threshold of 1 million in 2012. The influx of Russians is attributed mainly to easier access to visas, improved flight connections and publicity campaigns.
Spain now wants to grant more visas also to tourists from other non-European countries, such as China or India, Tourism Minister Jose Manuel Soria said.
Yet while more foreigners come to enjoy Spain's beaches and historic cities, Spaniards themselves travel less in their own country.
Those who do travel, do so as cheaply as possible, often staying with relatives or friends instead of hotels.
"It will be very difficult for domestic tourism to start recovering before the end of the year," when the recession is expected to loosen its grip, Encinas said.
Another problem affecting the tourism business is its seasonal nature. There have long been attempts to develop urban, environmental, sports, gastronomic and other types of tourism to draw travellers also outside the warm season.
Spain comes second only to Italy regarding the number of historic monuments, Pituca Caton from the state tourism promotion organ Turespana told dpa.
But so far, "the sun-and-sea formula remains the main support" of the Spanish tourism industry, Encinas admits.
Analysts of Spain's economic structures have long criticized them as being too focused on low-tech service sectors, such as tourism. But now, such voices are hardly heard, as the crisis-hit economy needs all the help it can get.
"Developing tourism does not prevent Spain from developing other sectors as well," Encinas said.
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