Photographer: Pau Barrena/AFP via Getty Images

Terror Sends Europe’s Holidaymakers to Safety of Spain, Portugal

  • France, Turkey see a drop in visitor numbers on security fear
  • Spain, Portugal are drawing a record number of tourists

Almudena Martin is scrambling to keep up with tourists flooding to the Canary Islands hotels where she works. Reservations are up as much as 20 percent this year as terror attacks and security worries elsewhere draw visitors to the safety of countries like Spain.

“There’s been a lot of last-minute bookings, we’ve had to hire new staff and redo our planning board for the summer to cope with new demand,” said the assistant general manager at Seaside Hotels, which has two five-star properties on the islands. “We also have many clients who have stayed with us twice this year because it’s a safe destination.”

After multiple attacks in France and a failed coup in Turkey, both Spain and its Iberian neighbor Portugal are forecasting a record number of visitors this year as tourists seek sun in destinations perceived as safer. For Portugal, it’s also helping fuel a push to keep the destination on travelers’ year-round itineraries.

“Portugal always shows up as a safe destination," the nation’s Economy Minister Manuel Caldeira Cabral said in an interview. The country is working to find different segments, like sporting and corporate events, to fill hotels in the winter. “Next year, we are going to see less concentration in the peak season and a more even spread of tourists not only across the time frame of the year, but also across the country."

Tourism is big business for both economies -- generating about 10 percent of gross domestic product in both Spain and Portugal. In Spain, arrivals were up 7.4 percent through May this year, while visitor spending jumped 7.8 percent. Overnight stays by non-residents in Portugal advanced 13 percent in the same period.

Regional Unrest

Turkey and France have seen the opposite. The nation’s travel agency association is forecasting a drop of up to 40 percent in 2016 income. France, the world’s most visited country, suffered an 8.7 percent drop in foreign visitors in the fourth quarter of last year -- when terrorists killed 130 people in and around Paris.

For more on the coup’s impact on Turkish travel, click here

Turkey “is seen as conflict area,” said Professor Josep Francesc Valls, a lecturer at ESADE Business School in Spain. As people increasingly shun it, they turn to Iberia because the visitor profile of many of those who go to Turkey -- European families seeking sunny weather -- is similar to that in Spain, according to Valls.

Portuguese Investment

That’s not to say that Portugal is taking anything for granted -- it has bolstered security measures at airports and popular tourist destinations, following the “terrible events” in France and Turkey, Cabral said. It’s also increased the number of doctors in the Algarve region in the summer.

The government is providing credit lines for innovative hotel projects and to help existing hotel owners renovate their properties. It’s also building a free wifi network in historic centers across the country as it simplifies legislation on short-term rentals in a bid to increase the quality and sustainability of the tourism sector in Portugal, said Cabral. His government is also playing a role in helping Lisbon attract big conferences such as November’s “The Web Summit," one of the world’s biggest gatherings of start-ups.

“When tourism is going quite well we have to work to guarantee that this is not a peak or a fashion but a trend,” said Cabral. “And we want to maintain that trend.”

At the Conrad Algarve Hotel in Quinta do Logo, rooms cost about 500 euros ($550) a night in high season but that hasn’t kept people from selecting it this summer, according to its director.

“Overall, our bookings for the summer are well above expectations,” said Joachim Hartl. “One of the big factors of this destination is safety and security. This has helped increase tourism overall to Portugal.” That will “surely” benefit Portugal in the off-peak season, he added.

Italy, Too

The impact isn’t limited to just Spain and Portugal, according to Starwood Hotels & Resorts Worldwide Inc. In Costa Smeralda, an upscale stretch of seaside resorts in Sardinia, the company’s growth was 33 percent in the first six months from the year earlier.

“There was a significant increase in bookings from both Italian and foreign travelers because indeed, they feel more secure in Italy now,” said Robert Koren, a company vice president, in a statement.

Spanish Trend

While Spain is no stranger to violence, its last major terrorist attack was 12 years ago. The country enjoyed a bumper year for tourism last year, with a record 68 million visitors arriving to the nation as it became one of the main beneficiaries of the political unrest across the Mediterranean. And it looks on track to hit a new milestone this year, according to Madrid-based agency Exceltur, which sees Spain hitting a fresh high of 74 million tourists.

One of them is Hungarian Laszlo Ludas. The 43-year-old IT manager was on his sixth trip to Spain, stopping in Madrid to take in the Hieronymous Bosch exhibit at the Prado.

“I just love Spain -- the culture, the language," he said last week, sipping coffee as he waited in line. “It’s true safety can’t be guaranteed anywhere, but I don’t worry about security here."

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