Benidorm and the Costa del Sol are trying to attract big spenders in a bid to stop relying on ‘Brits Abroad’
The package holiday has long been a great British institution. The concept was a local idea: in 1841, Thomas Cook offered workers tea, ham sandwiches and a brass band on a day trip from Leicester to Loughborough. With it came the birth of mass tourism.
Since the post-war economic boom, Britons have ventured abroad on all-inclusive trips in the tens of millions. Even at the turn of the century, when the package getaway was said to be in terminal decline, half of all vacations were all-inclusive and tour operators reported a surge of interest in the years before the pandemic.
Nowhere has package travel as we know it been enjoyed more than in one of Britain’s favorite destinations: Benidorm.
In 1950, Pedro Zaragoza, the young mayor of a then sparsely populated fishing town, decided to embark on a transformation of European tourism.
With tuna fishing, its main source of industry, in decline, Zaragoza declared a “magnificent future” for its city and presented a vision of tourist influxes and high-rise hotels in its 1955 brochure titled “Benidorm Will Be So”.
His vision would be realized. Today, Benidorm is the New York of seaside towns. 154 largely high-rise hotels vie for the Costa Blanca skyline, many blocking the view of their rivals, such has been the rapid influx of tourists and money, mostly from Britain.
Spain is Britain’s favorite holiday destination. In 2019, the last normal year for world travel, 18.1 million Britons visited Spain. This is almost double the 10 million who have ventured to our nearest neighbour, France.
The British tourist was so integral to the grand vision of this town of Benidorm that Zaragoza even sent wine from local vineyards to a young Queen Elizabeth II. She never accepted the offer of a vacation package.
But today, the British tide is turning.
Spain’s tourism bosses warn its reliance on British package traveler comes at the expense of better-paying visitors, and its famous Costas have become too dependent on people fleeing Blighty.
Along the beaches and cliffs of the Costa Del Sol – which includes destinations like Marbella and Torremolinos – two million fewer visitors from around the world are expected.
It gave tourism honchos a reason to go Dutch – or German, or French – to avoid an economic slide.
British visitors should not be forgotten, but tourism board boss Francisco Salado said ‘we are going on an unprecedented offensive to avoid overreliance on markets like the UK’.
They spend around £1.6m on advertising campaigns across mainland Europe to attract customers who might hold their purse strings looser than us Brits.
Official statistics from January show German tourists spent an average of £1,179 (1,410 euros), more than their British counterparts, who spent £1,035 (1,410 euros) on average over the same period, according to the ‘Instituto Nacional de Estadistica.
They are also increasing in number. In 2021, visitors to the province of Malaga from Germany increased by 87.6% compared to 2020, reaching 353,431. There were 69% more tourists from France than the previous year , or nearly three hundred thousand.
The number of travelers from Belgium, Denmark and Sweden also increased significantly.
Mr. Salado wants to “position the Costa as an interesting destination 365 days a year, and raise awareness not only of our sun and our beaches, but also of our rural tourist attractions, our gastronomy, our culture and our golf “.
This is confirmed by Leire Bilboa, director of Visit Benidorm, on the Costa Blanca.
“Our strategy is to try to find customers who have more budget. In France, we have people from the south of France who come by car, but those from the north of France who come by plane spend a lot more money. We promote in the north of France where people have more money,” she said.
The biggest spenders, she admits, are Russians and Algerians, but they are few in number.
The large number of British visitors poses its own problems, admits the local tourism boss. German tourists may be the biggest spenders individually, but they are put off by the number of English people.
“In the Balearics there are German customers in one place and British customers in another place, and they don’t mix because of WWII and other things,” she says.
“We’re not talking about young people, we’re talking about old people who initially didn’t want to mix when they went on vacation.”
Martin Angus has vacationed here since 2011, when he first visited for a conference, and now comes several times a year for an affordable stay alone or with friends.
Mr Angus, who lives in Croydon, south London, said: “I’m here with a friend because it’s good for us on a budget.
“You can get cheap hotels, the food is very cheap, there are plenty of places to have a drink and there is a lovely tram to explore the wider area which keeps me entertained.
“You also see all kinds: I like to post my ‘scooter of the day’ pictures online – all the darlings cruising around on their mobility scooters. It’s great fun without being very expensive.
Close your eyes as you stand on Benidorm’s nine-kilometre-long seafront, you’d be forgiven for mistaking it for a bustling English town center on a weekend – albeit with slightly better weather.
Bars as far as the eye can see: British bars, karaoke bars, Tiki bars, open bars.
Further into town, cafes advertise their full English breakfasts from just five euros. No one asks how it’s so cheap. This is Britain at sea. Indeed, it was recently named the most ‘British’ resort in Spain.
In mid-April, most hotels cost between £30 and £60 a night, with even the five-star Villa Valencia charging a modest £140 a night.
But it has given the city a reputation that some see as a problem.
When Zaragoza was realizing his vision, he warned people to ignore the snobbery that said such cheap trips would leave the city filled with “sick people”.
But the city’s current mayor had to ban people who rented mobility scooters who didn’t need them, due to the number of beer-driven Brits from racing them around the city the way of the channel-smoking scooter fan Madge Harvey, from the ITV sitcom Benidorm.
Zaragoza has always believed that the two ideas of tourist could coexist. He told people to climb to the top of Sierra Helada, the ridge rising above Benidorm beach.
From here, its supporters argued, you can see how natural Benidorm remains, thanks to Zaragoza’s insistence that skyscrapers be at least seven meters from the pavement and their concrete structure cannot occupy than 30% of the land on which they were built.
Local tourist patron, Ms Balboa, explains: “There are many Benidorms in the same Benidorm. There are people who are looking for that fiesta, who are looking for fun and ease, but there are also the golf courses that we have and the good hotels.
Although located in the modest mountains of the Valencian countryside, the town itself spreads over wide, flat sidewalks, ideal for the elderly and less mobile.
During the winter months and during the long vacant years of global lockdowns, it was filled with elderly Spaniards, with Spaniards making up around half of its annual visitors.
As a result, Benidorm is turning to health tourism; an activity more commonly associated with Eastern European destinations.
“We have private hospitals where they can do different types of operations, like knee problems. They can get health care faster if they can afford it,” says Ms. Balboa.
“We have two private hospitals which are of very good quality. These hospitals have good conditions, but it is also a sunny place and therefore there are many options to be in a hotel for people recovering.
“We get Brits, Poles, Belgians, Swedes, lots of people from northern Europe.”
Visitors get their transactions much faster and at lower costs than they would have to pay to be treated privately in many Northern European countries.
Guests stay longer as they recover from routine operations related to hip and back problems.
Alongside those seeking private healthcare, Spain has long been a top destination for retired Britons.
A contingent the size of Derby have made Spain their retirement home: more than a quarter of a million native Britons live out their twilight years in towns and villages, some of which are now predominantly British.
But this image too, she tries to shake. The Spanish coast will no longer be the retirement choice of Brits, with places like Malaga instead aiming to become a hub of entrepreneurship and rebrand themselves as the ‘new Silicon Valley’.
Forbes and Bloomberg recently ranked the area among the best places in the world to move to work, and the University of Malaga now has over 38,000 students enrolled.
Malaga has “the highest concentration of museums per square kilometer in Europe”, as well as 300 days of sunshine a year.
“Interest has skyrocketed and it’s not just for the weather that so many companies are locating here,” Linus Frejd, a Swedish expat who runs the city’s big Ikea, told a local newspaper. .
70 years after Zaragoza launched its Las Vega dream of a bustling Benidorm, Spain’s populous Costas seems to be taking a new turn.
It remains to be seen whether the shores of Malaga, Marbella and Benidorm can be transformed into high-end destinations filled with older, wealthier northern Europeans.
In 1989, Vladimir Raitz, a Russian-born British businessman who pioneered mass-market package holidays from the late 1940s, remarked: “Benidorm looks awful now.”
43 years later, the destination is still as popular as ever. But maybe soon the British and Germans will be sharing deckchairs on Playa de Levante beach after all.