A fall in British tourist numbers after years of record-breaking figures, and Brexit just months away, meant that this week's World Travel Market (WTM) in London was going to be a challenging one for the Costa del Sol.
The feeling, however, among the delegations from Andalucía, the Costa del Sol and Malaga city after a busy three days at the world's biggest tourism fair, is mainly positive. Despite uncertainty and increased competition from rival destinations, the contacts made this week with tour operators, agencies and the tourists themselves have shown that British holidaymakers still love Andalucía.
30 million for Andalucía
Susana Díaz, the president of Andalucía, went to the World Travel Market, armed with statistics. Andalucía expects to reach the total figure of 30 million tourists in 2018, she announced, despite the drop in British visitors to the region.
The fair, where Andalucía joins tourist destinations from around the world in a bid to attract the British tourist market, was attended by more than 150 professionals from the region's tourism industry, all of whom with full programmes of meetings to make the most of the three-day event.
The reappearance on the market of rival Mediterranean destinations such as Turkey or Egypt is considered one of the main causes of the 2.9% fall in British guests in Andalusian hotels in the first nine months of this year, leaving the total at 1.2 million.
Despite this fall, however, Díaz said that this year Andalucía would reach the 30 million tourist milestone in 2018, a target that was originally set for 2020.
"With these figures, Andalucía receives 3.5 times its own population," said Díaz, who praised the work of the regional tourism department, led by Francisco Javier Fernández, and the good coordination between the authorities and the private sector.
The president stressed the importance of the World Travel Market for Andalucía as 24% of the foreign visitors to southern Spain are British. The diversity of the destination and the good communications are what she says help "keep British tourists loyal in these times of uncertainty". Despite the fall in passenger arrivals this year, the British tourists' average daily spend remains as high as 70 euros and the average score given to the region is 8.4 out of ten.
Taking place less than five months before the official date for the exit of the United Kingdom from the European Union, this year's WTM was inevitably marked by Brexit. How the country's move out of the EU will affect the industry was a question brought up at most meetings and press conferences at the show.
There was little doubt that British people will still demand foreign holidays but there is uncertainty surrounding changing conditions and how these might affect airlines and other companies in the industry.
At the meeting held on Tuesday between the Andalusian tourism authorities and a group of British tour operators, Mark Tanzer, chief executive of ABTA (the Association of British Travel Agents), stressed the need for the EU to keep its "doors open" for British tourists.
"We are very hopeful that a reasonable agreement will be reached over Brexit in order to maintain the flow [of tourists] not just to Andalucía but to the rest of the Spanish destinations. Now we are heading towards a new phase, we have to insist on this and trust that the traffic with Spain and Andalucía will keep moving. In fact reservations are up," added Tanzer.
The ABTA chief explained that bookings made with tour operators are higher now than they were at this time last year.
A positive note also came from the CEO of Jet2holidays-Jet2.com, Steve Heapy, at a dinner on Monday, when he revealed a growth forecast for holidays on the Costa del Sol of 12 per cent for this winter and of 15 per cent from April next year.
Heapy also commented on the trend for British holidaymakers to break up their annual leave more, taking several smaller holidays rather than one big one. This change in habits has already been taken onboard by the regional tourism authority.
Francisco Javier Fernández, the Andalusian minister for Tourism, told the British tour operators at Tuesday's meeting that the region's intention was to gain weight in the market for holidays of just three or four days. "The city break is a great opportunity for Andalucía," said Abta chief, Tanzer.
Another concern that came up among industry representatives at the WTM was climate change. The increase in temperatures this year in the UK has worked to the benefit of the domestic tourist industry, with the UK itself appearing as a potential new rival for the Costa del Sol.
Costa and city
The president of the Costa del Sol tourist board, Elías Bendodo, joined the mayors of the main tourist destinations on the coast's own space for the first time at the WTM this year, rather than just occupying a stand in the Andalucía section.
Bendodo was optimistic about the British tourist figures, predicting an increase of 7.4% in visitor numbers over the next six months, based on the increase in seats available on flights from the UK of around 15%.
The Malaga city councillor for Tourism, María del Mar Martín Rojo, confirmed the good forecasts for British tourists visiting the city, despite the negative figures elsewhere in the region. An increase of 5% of visitors is expected this year, said the councillor.
The WTM was a showcase for new tourism projects. On Tuesday the CEO of the Meliá hotel group, Gabriel Escarrer, announced plans for a new hotel next to the future commercial and leisure centre to be built in Torremolinos by the firm Intu. Meeting with the town's mayor José Ortiz, Escarrer said that the hotel would have four stars and be equipped with state-of-the-art technology.
The Palladium hotel group also chose the WTM to announce its first hotel on the Costa del Sol. This four-star establishment will be located in Torremuelle, Benalmádena, and, with 330 rooms, open its doors in July 2019.
Sun and golf
The Spanish minister for Tourism, Reyes Maroto, was also in London on Monday, visiting the stands for Spain, Andalucía, the Costa del Sol and Malaga.
The minister said that while the tourism offer in Spain was so diverse, the government was fully behind the promotion of the traditional sun, sea and sand tourism which is the main pull for British tourists.
Golf, another of the Costa del Sol's main attractions for British visitors, was what Marbella town hall's tourism delegation focused on at this year's WTM.
The mayor, Ángeles Muñoz, held meetings with specialist tour operators to promote golfing holidays and complementary attractions such as shopping and dining as well as luxury facilities.