Spanish sun attracts tourists shunning attack-hit Mediterranean
It's low season and the sun in Barcelona shines only timidly, but Noel Sheehan's cycling tours are doing a roaring trade as holiday-makers shun their usual Mediterranean tourism hotspots after a spate of jihadist attacks.
As the world's third tourism destination after France and the United States, Spain has already beaten records in the number of foreign visitors for three years in a row, and 2016 is expected to follow the same trend.
"I've been doing this for 16 years and 2015 was our best year," Sheehan tells AFP in the office of his tour company, tucked away in a small, pedestrian alley in the picturesque Gothic quarter of this Mediterranean city -- the most visited in Spain.
"We've been working well during winter too and we're receiving more calls to ask for information or bookings for the high season," says the bearded Irishman as he prepares bikes for the next tour.
He adds that for some time now, Europeans have for a large part replaced Americans in his client list, thanks to the expansion of low-cost airlines and sporadic unrest in many Mediterranean countries.
- 'Don't go now' -
Jihadist attacks on tourists in Tunisia last year and the IS-claimed October crash of a Russian plane which took off from the Egyptian resort of Sharm el-Sheikh, as well as a suicide bomb in Istanbul, have seen travellers shun these once-favoured vacation destinations.
People like Florian Grohe and Saskia Oetzmann, a young couple from Munich in Germany who had originally planned to go to Istanbul, but ended up in Barcelona.
"Our parents were saying all the time 'don't go now, don't go now, look for something else' and flights to Barcelona were cheaper," said Oetzmann.
"We were not scared but we did not want them to worry and I am a big supporter of FC Barcelona, so it was a good choice as well," added Grohe.
Oetzmann and Grohe are but a drop in the ocean of tourists in Spain. Some 68.1 million foreign travellers visited in 2015, nearly five percent more than the previous year.
And that number is expected to swell in 2016.
"Just in January, we've registered 25 percent more reservations for Spain than the previous year," says Maria Sierra, spokeswoman for eDreams, one of the main European online travel agencies headquartered in Barcelona.
It's the same story for Anna Vives Begliomini, owner of Look Barcelona, which rents out luxury flats and guest houses on Barcelona's most expensive Paseo de Gracia street, where works by Spain's famed architect Antoni Gaudi abound.
"We're getting a lot of reservations in advance. At the end of the year, we had some of the places almost full for April, May or June," she says, pointing also to the increasing number of Chinese and South Koreans coming to visit.
- TUI notes Spain shift -
And apart from the classic urban destinations of Barcelona and Madrid, tourist zones along Spain's sunny coasts are also doing well, particularly the Canary Islands off northwest Africa and the Balearic islands in the Mediterranean.
"We've had an increase in bookings particularly for the summer period," says Manuel Valenzuela, deputy head of Catalonia Hotels, which has some 50 establishments across Spain and saw its turnover increase by 15 percent last year.
Even TUI, the world's biggest tourism group, has noted this shift to Spain on the back of jihadist attacks.
On Tuesday, chief executive Fritz Joussen said 2016 summer bookings in Turkey had dropped by 40 percent in the wake of a January suicide bombing in Istanbul that killed 11 German tourists.
"Our own hotels in destinations outside Turkey such as Spain and in particular the Canaries are benefitting from this shift in demand," he said.
And Giovanni Cavalli, commercial director for theme park Port Aventura south of Barcelona, said he was expecting to get more tourists on the back of the Turkey attack.
"Turkey worked a lot with the Russian, German and British markets," he says.
"I'm pretty sure that these tourists will be looking for a more peaceful place, and this place is Spain."
© 2016 AFP