Spain turns to smart tech to shine tourism brand

From tapas to tech and cerveza to software, Spain is tackling a backlash from residents against the annual tide of sunseeking tourists by turning to new ways of tapping different markets, hopefully resulting in more money from fewer visitors.

The country’s tourism sector has become a victim of its own success, overtaking the US last year to become the world’s second-most visited destination. But its model has been based on drawing in high volumes of visitors to sun-soaked costas in search of sea, sand and cheap beer.

It lags European rivals in attracting the affluent traveler, coming in at number 15, with Italy holding top spot with more than a third of the market, according to a survey by Travel Leaders Group.

The government has therefore been pushing hard to spread the wealth of a sector that accounts for 11 per cent of the economy away from the coastline towards areas such as gastronomy, wellness, viniculture and Spain’s rich cultural heritage.

The country does have a lot to offer. It boasts 46 Unesco World Heritage Sites, more than a million vineyards from the world famous Rioja region as well as more up and coming destinations such as Priorat, and an endless variety of tapas.

In some areas, the effort to deepen the tourist experience is undoubtedly gaining ground. For example, in recent years, Spain has undergone a culinary revolution, as molecular specialist Ferran Adria, and the Basque masterchefs Martin Berasategui and Juan Mari Arzak have risen to global prominence, pulling in the high-spending gourmands with dishes such as white tuna with colourful garlic petals.

With the tasting menu at the three Michelin-starred Arzak costing more than €200 a head, it’s a far cry from the all you can eat buffet and two-for-one happy hour drinks touted at seaside resorts.

But these initiatives need an extra marketing boost, as they are still not reaching the key higher spenders who travel long haul. Spain only gets about 1.2 per cent of its overall arrivals from outside the European Union, according to an EY study. For every one euro spent tax-free shopping in Madrid, these international tourists are dropping €7.30 in Paris and €6.20 in London.

With Spain’s brand and what it has to offer relatively unknown beyond Europe, the country is turning to technology. A key plank in its tourism policy has been the Smart Destination initiative, which recognises that technology is changing the way people plan and book their travel experiences, and a total of 10 destinations have been implementing technology-based strategies.

The technology infrastructure is being upgraded in many tourism areas, not only to draw in tourists, but also to collate valuable data that allows the government to identify tourism trends and spending patterns. In Palma de Mallorca for example, a business intelligence platform will make data collected by the private sector available to businesses, providing valuable information that will allow them to respond to potential gaps in the market.

Free access to Wifi was found to be one of the most requested services from tourists, and is another way to analyse visitors’ spending habits. As a result, Playa de Palma now boasts the largest continuous free Wifi zone in Europe.

Another project under the initiative has been “push” shopping, designed to help Las Palmas in the Canary Islands squeeze more out of its cruise business. Local businesses are able to ping services and discounts in multiple languages to visitors’ smart phones, encouraging them to stop and spend.

Cruise boats are notorious for bringing in large volumes of visitors for brief shore stops, only to return to the ship for food and drink. By pushing shopping and service offers to  smartphones, it is hoped wallets will be opened in the local community before embarkation.

To crack the key Chinese visitor market, which is forecast to be the biggest source of outbound tourism by 2020, social media is crucial. And here some of Spain’s largest companies are taking the lead.

Retail giant El Corte Ingles hosted a Chinese New Year Party this year with style guru Anny Fan as a special guest. She is one of the key influencers in China, with 45,000 Instagram followers, and a few posts can go a long way in planting the idea of Spain as a luxury shopping destination.

As big data helps to identify and plug gaps in the market and sites such as Instagram spread the word for Spain’s hidden gems, there are hopes the image of Spain as a bargain basement destination may be fading fast. Jose Luis Zoreda, executive director of Spanish tourism association Exceltur, notes signs of progress in the first quarter of this year were encouraging, with fewer tourists spending more.

The objective, he said, is not “to break records, but to optimise results”.