History of tourism in Spain

Spain’s tourism boom began in the mid-1950s with the seaside Mediterranean resorts offering sun and sea packages to Northern Europeans. Tourism figures have steadily risen, from fewer than 1 million tourists in 1950, reaching more than 34 million in 1973 to over 78 million in 2002. This rapid increase has not always been beneficial as although there have been new employment opportunities and increased investment, there are seasonal fluctuations with tourism and a huge impact on the natural environment.

Nonetheless, tourism has been very important to the Spanish economy. Spain’s visitors are mostly from the European Union, with France, Portugal, Britain, and West Germany at the top of the list, but Russia and other Scandinavian countries are increasing their share every year. 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 income after Britain.

Government involvement

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. In 1951 the Ministry of Information and Tourism was created, becoming the Ministry of Transportation, Tourism, and Communications in the 1980s. The National Tourist Company, a state-owned enterprise, was engaged in the construction of hotels and tourist complexes.

Tourist promotion included activities such 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 that 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).

Today there is less government control and investment, but standards are still set by government authority. With the growth of the European Union, there has been more foreign investment and today many tourists actually own their own slice of Spain in the form of a room or holiday home in a popular area.

For the past two decades Spain has consistently been in the top five of world tourism destinations and this has not been without both good and bad effects. Challenges today include monitoring infrastructure growth so that the impact on the environment is limited, setting and maintaining high standards without raising the cost to the tourist and developing new attractions and forms of tourism so that there is less pressure on the heavily visited areas.


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