Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Tourism's Grim Up North

The national government has yet another tourism scheme up its sleeves. This one is called "España Verde" (Green Spain) and, like the "Marca España" is supposedly a branding exercise, so this one will be as well. And, as part of this green branding, the government's tourism promotion agency, Turespaña, has been scouring the dictionary for a new word to include. They have come up with "norte" - north.

Green Spain is a campaign confined to a geographical region, namely the "north", by which is meant the regions with an Atlantic coastline - Galicia, Asturias, Cantabria and the Basque Country. Turespaña says that these regions will create new tourism products of traditions, culture, landscapes and cuisine. These products will be distinct from other parts of Spain and will offer "different experiences".

There is in all this something of a reinvention of the wheel and of a harking back to the past in emphasising difference. "Spain is Different" was one of the first slogans adopted to attract tourists after the Second World War and it was one that survived for many years. Though the slogan embraced the notion of Spain as being the point where Europe met Africa (an earlier slogan in the 1930s had boasted "the romance of Africa and the comforts of Europe"), officialdom was slow to latch onto the attractions of the far sunnier climes of the Costas and Mallorca.

Not everyone was as slow by any means, but governmentally there was a belief that the Atlantic coast would be a prime if not the prime area for tourism development. It would be a key centre of Spain's "difference". This was a belief based on what was evident before the Civil War and the Second World War. Northern beaches and cities such as Santander and San Sebastian were popular, more so than other parts of Spain. It may seem odd now to appreciate that these beaches were considered to be the main centres for summer tourism, while the Costas and Mallorca were thought of more as winter destinations.

This was what officialdom thought, and it was a mode of thinking that would have appealed to the Francoists of the immediate post-war period, as the northern regions did possess serious amounts of tradition, not least Santiago de Compostela, the spiritual centre of Spanish Catholicism. But it was a mode of thinking that totally overlooked trends towards beach tourism and sun worship, ones that had existed well before the war. Although the Franco regime favoured these established Atlantic regions (and it might be remembered that Franco himself came from Galicia) and although there was a tourism drive based bizarrely on "rutas de guerra" (war routes) which developed into tours of historical cities, the Costas and Mallorca created a whole other tourism supply, and the demand for sun and beach was far better met in Mallorca than on the Atlantic; Cantabria, as an example, is one of the wettest parts of Spain.

Now, therefore, Turespaña has rediscovered the old "difference" up north. It is further evidence of an attempt to rectify what has been admitted - that cultural tourism has not been handled particularly well for years. Whether "Green Spain" is the best of brands is perhaps debatable, as "green" has its specific environmental connotation, but the geographical niching of the Atlantic regions does make some sense, more so than Turespaña's umbrella slogan of "I Need Spain", one that fails to emphasise the great natural and cultural diversity of Spain.

The boom in 1960s sun-and-beach tourism disrupted other forms of tourism promotion to the extent that they were largely neglected. Only now is there a genuinely coherent effort to reinvent what the Franco regime in its earlier years, albeit in a rather naïve fashion, had sought to promote. But then those naïve efforts, and one can see the type of promotion that was used in posters for inland rural as well as cultural tourism, were matched by the naïveté and gullibility of tourists of the time. Do you know what happened in 1956? "My Fair Lady" is what happened. And which was one of its most popular songs? The rain in Spain didn't and doesn't fall mainly in the plain. It falls mainly in Cantabria. But who knew where was where back then. A joke, the quoting of which is attributed to Robert Graves, had it that a woman, on telling her friend that she had been on holiday in Mallorca, was asked where Mallorca was. The woman replied that she didn't know; she had gone by plane. All tourists wanted to know was where the sun was. The sun shone mainly in Mallorca. By comparison, tourism was grim up north.

Any comments to andrew@thealcudiaguide.com please.

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