A pair of old friends from Barcelona came to stay with us for a week in August, as they do every summer, welcoming Ireland’s breezy climate as a respite from the 40C heat endured throughout much of Spain.
Over evenings of craft beer and smoked salmon, the conversation turned, as usual, to a comparison of our respective countries. In addition to the standard of living costs, one topic stood out, namely Brexit. Brexit is having a bad influence across much of European tourism this summer, with many countries echoing a similarly worried outlook for Ireland.
With both of our visitors working in Barcelona’s tourism industry, we found ourselves on the same page when it came to comparing reduced numbers of British tourists to our respective shores so far in 2019.
UK tourism has long been vital for Spain, with 18.5m of its citizens having holidayed there in 2018. The number represents an important lynchpin of its tourism industry, which accounts for 12% of the Spanish economy.
Sterling has dropped to a 10-year low against the euro, as a result of Brexit, impacting directly on the pound’s purchasing power overseas. Spain, like Ireland, has felt the backlash, with figures for June showing British traveller numbers dropped by over 5% in the year. It has been reported as the weakest start to the summer season in four years.
In addition, Spain is also contending with less expensive holiday destinations outside the EU, as bookings to Turkey, Tunisia, and Egypt have jumped over 30%. An average bed night on the Costa del Sol hovers around €85, for instance, which is double that of Turkey’s Bodrum.
“The weakness of the pound against the euro is the most likely cause for holidaymakers’ willingness to venture further afield,” the troubled UK tour operator Thomas Cook said in April.
Last week, Thomas Cook was rescued by Chinese investment company Fosun, which already owns Club Med. Portugal has also seen a drop in British visitor numbers, which account for 20% of the country’s tourist market.
Having dropped by over 7% cent in 2018, Portugal responded by launching a dedicated advertising campaign entitled ‘Brelcome’, with the main slogan ‘Portugal will never leave you’. Luís Araújo, president of Tourismo de Portugal, said:
We thought this was the right opportunity to tell a very good friend that we will never leave them.
In the event of a no-deal Brexit,Portuguese authorities have indicated they will provide dedicated airport customs lanes to ease entry for British visitors. A similar Spanish Tourism campaign uses the tagline: ‘You have Spain in Common’ to highlight that the country is also open for business despite concerns over Brexit.
One of the promotional videos features a gathering of friends at the beach. As the footage rolls, the text states: “This is how Remainers spend a day at the beach”, followed immediately by a similar scene with the text: “This is how Leavers spend a day at the beach.” The video ends with the hashtag #spainincommon.
“The aim of this campaign is to reassure customers that Spain is open for business and to help with any misinformation around how to travel to Spain in the run-up to Brexit,” said Spanish Tourist Office president Isabel Oliver.
As British visitors decline along the Costas, so too do the takings in tavernas and cafes. In the same way that publicans from Killarney to Galway and up through Donegal have noted the lack of sterling-spending vacationers from the North and tourists from Britain this summer, Spanish brewers are feeling a similar pinch.
“A hard Brexit, which will probably limit freedom of movement, could send the British home,” said Jacobo Olalla, managing director of Spain’s beer producer association, Cerveceros de Espana. “The UK is a country with a big beer culture which doubles or triples our consumption and also helps us to export. Brexit is not good news for anyone,” he said.
A recent Fáilte Ireland tourism barometer revealed that two-thirds of Irish businesses are concerned about Brexit, and with due reason, given that British tourists accounted for over a third of the overall market share of total overseas tourists in Ireland in 2018.
“While it is still difficult to quantify the range and scope of impacts that Brexit will have, our key message to tourism businesses is ‘prepare and diversify’. Any tourism business which does not have Brexit contingencies as a central focus of its 2019 business plan needs to act fast,” said Paul Kelly, chief executive of Fáilte Ireland. Businesses need to recalibrate towards newer segments in the British market or to newer markets.”
Michael Lennon, president of the Irish Hotels Federation, echoes the sentiment: “As the deadline for Brexit approaches, we cannot stand still and no matter what happens, our sector must be prepared for any and all contingencies,” he said.
Driving our Barcelona friends to the airport, we embraced and wished each other good fortune over the coming year. All things being well, they will return for their annual holiday in Ireland next August, but wondering with growing concern what the shape of our shared EU will take over the challenging months ahead.