Monday, January 20, 2014

Extreme Tourism Promotion: Extremadura

Extremadura is the fifth largest region of Spain. It is also one of the poorest regions and has been hit particularly hard by the depression in the construction industry. Its unemployment rate is said to be 33%, higher therefore than the official national average (one says official, because there is always a caveat when it comes to unofficial employment, namely the black economy). This caveat notwithstanding, things in Extremadura are definitely tougher than most of the rest of Spain, and they might just get tougher if its public sector were to be trimmed back; it accounts for a third of what employment there is in the region.

The reliance on the public sector and on construction makes Extremadura a case example of what is inherently wrong with Spain's economy as a whole but it also emphasises, where the public sector is concerned, a Catch-22: cut public-sector employment significantly, unemployment goes up and there is little by way of an alternative. Unless, that is, there is some form of attitudinal and cultural change; the question being, though, to what.

For other parts of Spain there is always the get-out clause which is tourism. But Extremadura does not have a vast tourism industry. Landlocked, in 2012 it attracted slightly more than 200,000 foreign tourists in 2012. It's not even peanuts. As a region, though, it does have some things going for it. There are World Heritage sites, such as the monastery of Santa María de Guadalupe, and it is a region famed for the gastronomy of "jamón ibérico".

The tourism numbers in Extremadura are swelled by Spanish visitors to nearly 1.5 million, but it is foreign tourism that the region needs badly. What it gets at present is skewed in favour of Portuguese visitors, the largest tourism market, with the French, the British and the Germans trailing these. Consequently, a strategic effort to attract more foreign tourism has been put in place, with nature, gastronomy and culture very much part of this strategy (as you might expect). The region is strengthening its efforts to bring in French tourism and is eyeing up the American and Scandinavian markets; unlike the Balearics, the number of Scandinavians visiting Extremadura is negligible.

A comparison with the Balearics is impossible to make, except in one possible way: the amount of money that is being spent on tourism promotion. The Balearics budget for 2014 is less than three million euros. Extremadura's is, get this, just under 25 million euros.

If Extremadura might be a region of Spain which is not that well-known, Madrid would not be. This is the Community of Madrid and so not just the city. It suffered a major fall in its tourism last summer. In August it was down by more than 20%, and this was foreign tourism. Madrid, clearly, suffers from the same disadvantage as Extremadura in being landlocked, but it has very much stronger advantages in terms of international awareness and a diversity in the tourism offer. Despite this, it experienced its fall in tourism numbers, one that came as a genuine shock.

In an attempt to plough back this lost market, Madrid is increasing its tourism promotion budget. In 2014 it will be up by a whopping 68% to 12.4 million euros; only half of what Extremadura is planning on spending but still considerably greater than the Balearics. 

One looks at these figures for tourism promotion and wonders how it can be that the Balearics, with the enormous tourism industry it has, can spend so little. But though there is vast difference in the spend, there is also a vast difference in tourist awareness. No one has ever heard of Extremadura. Everyone has heard of the individual Balearic Islands.

This said, everyone has heard of Madrid and everyone has heard of Catalonia - its Costas and Barcelona certainly. And Catalonia doesn't have the disadvantage of being landlocked. It attracts more tourists than the Balearics and it will be spending more than Extremadura and Madrid put together in 2014, thanks in no small part to revenues from its tourist tax.

The circumstances, though, are different. For Extremadura, a virtual economic basket case of a region, it is a case of needs must. It needs any economic activity it can lay its hands on, so the 25 million is probably a wise investment. For Madrid, there was the shock of the decline last summer. For Catalonia, there is the windfall that has come from the tax. So, is it fair to compare these budgets with that of the Balearics?

Mallorca and the other islands do, certainly in summer, pretty much sell themselves, but this shouldn't be an excuse for neglecting promotion. Even if promotion is designed to keep the islands at the "front of mind" of tourists who are very familiar with them anyway, then it is promotion worth doing and worth spending money on.

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