"This year we're swapping the Christmas lights in Madrid for the ones in Malaga. Come and enjoy some festive spirit beside the sea", said the publicity. Christmas business in Malaga city crosses frontiers these days, and the interest in its lights, nativity scenes, spectacular musical show and gastronomy goes beyond the boundaries of the province. Even beyond Andalucía, in fact.
In Almadén, a small village in Ciudad Real, 280 kilometres and a four-hour journey away, people have decided to forgo their traditional visit to the Spanish capital and come to Malaga instead. Leidy Pérez, the head of the agency which has organised the trip, says this is the first time they have decided to come south and the reason is that "it is a really good show and Malaga is well worth seeing at this time of year".
It has become fashionable to spend Christmas in Malaga, and not just because the council says so or because of trips like this one by these 150 people from Ciudad Real. The growing interest in the city as a tourist destination and the thousands of people who come to the historic city centre every day to enjoy its Christmas spirit is welcomed by hotel, restaurant and shop owners, because their level of business shoots up at this time of year. With hotels 80 per cent full on average, restaurants busy with company meals, get-togethers by groups of friends and bars opening at midday to attract these clients, there is no doubt that Christmas is big business in Malaga.
The Preview of Christmas Spending 2018, a report drawn up by the Consumers Union of Andalucía, concludes that families in Malaga will spend an average of 511 euros this Christmas, making it one of the provinces which spends most. In fact, the figure is well above the Andalusian average, which is barely 478 euros. Of the money spent, most goes on gifts and toys (174 euros), followed by entertainment (151).
Looking at Spain as a whole, a study by Deloitte shows that people are spending about 600 euros at Christmas, which is more than ever before and higher than anywhere else in Europe apart from the UK. Although the British spend more overall, more of their money goes on gifts and less on entertainment and travel. In Spain, it is the other way round.
In the leisure sector, the bars and restaurants of Malaga are expected to do best out of the festive season. Although different studies are carried out at this time of year, the most detailed one shows that 30 per cent of clients plan to spend more on lunches and dinners this year. According to El Tenedor, the average spend is between 25 and 35 euros. Specifically, the report shows that consumers are prepared to spend up to 45 euros, which is ten per cent more than last year. It also shows that group bookings are double those during the rest of the year and have increased by 20 per cent compared with the same time last year. About 87 per cent of restaurants are expecting more group bookings during this Christmas period.
For business owners in the city, Christmas begins in earnest this weekend. The public holidays earlier this month were also very busy, but bar and restaurant staff are expecting to be rushed off their feet over the next two weekends.
The president of the Málaga Hostelería association, Javier Frutos, says Christmas is one of the three busiest times of year for this sector, together with the week of the annual fair and Easter. "What happens is that this celebration is longer than the others and people spend more," he explains.
Although no specific figures can be predicted, turnover is expected to increase by at least one per cent this year. "Not just because of people attending company dinners, but also those who come to the city centre to see the lights and nativity scenes and have something to eat and drink while they're here," says Javier.
He also says the main change which has been noted in the city in recent years has been in consumption. The light show introduced by the council in Calle Larios has a strong pull effect and many people, residents and tourists, who come to see it, end up having a meal or tapas in bars or restaurants in the city centre. "Christmas comes as a great relief for us because things are very quiet for the couple of weeks after the two public holidays, so Christmas is a way of ending the year on a good note," he explains.
This increased activity in the city before the arrival of Santa Claus and then the Three Kings also has a clear effect on job creation. The Randstad temporary work agency estimates that 4,250 contracts have been signed in Malaga this season, nearly nine per cent more than last year and it expects the number of temporary jobs to hit a new record, not only in the province but in Andalucía and Spain as a whole. Of the total, more than half (2,500) the contracts signed have been in the bar and restaurant sector.
This changing trend is also being noted by hotels. Francisco Moro, the head of Aehcos, the hotel owners association of the Costa del Sol, says occupancy is now above 80 per cent at this time of year, and many establishments are full on the most important dates: "Malaga has seen a big change in the past three or four years," he says, and he believes it is due to a combination of factors. "The new Christmas lights, which everyone loves, plus the gastronomy, the shopping, the weather... This time of year is no longer low season, it is medium-high season these days."
It is almost impossible to find a hotel with a room free for Christmas Eve or New Year's Eve. According to the reservations portal Booking.com, occupancy on 24 December is around 85 per cent, and 95 per cent on 31 December. Those who are spending New Year's Eve in the historic city centre are likely to be spending on average 300 euros per couple (as much as 600 in some of the the newer, more luxurious hotels).
For Malaga council, the festive season can also be quantified. The decorations in Calle Larios and other emblematic areas of the city have cost 733,211 euros, a figure which rises to one million if the decorations in the districts further out are taken into account. It is justified, they say, because the city is becoming world famous and it generates more income than ever before at this time of year.
The councillor for Festivals, Teresa Porras, is proud of the amount of money which has been spent in the city since the new Christmas lights and music show were introduced. "The hotels are full, there is no room in the restaurants and coaches arrive every day from other parts of the province," she says. As if that were not enough, this year Malaga has been chosen as the best city in which to spend a sunny Christmas by the European Best Destinations organisation.
More New Year's Eve parties
Nightclubs are another feature of the Christmas business in Malaga, and at this time of year they are busy with group bookings. The vice-president of the Andalusian federation for bar and nightclub owners, Juan Rambla, says the last weeks of the year are a "big boost for business" because they can open at times which they normally wouldn't. More and more clubs are now organising New Year's Eve parties.
Rambla agrees that the city's Christmas lights have played an important role in this change, because so many people come to see them. "They attract visitors to the city centre, and then they feel festive. It's not like an ordinary day," he says.
Nowadays, everyone is talking about Malaga. As well as the European Best Destinations award, the Rumbo portal also says it is an essential destination at this time of year, and one of the most popular in Europe. The light show in Calle Larios has become "an icon for the festive season in Andalucía, Spain and even Europe", it says, and points out that bookings have risen by 19.7 per cent this year. Christmas in Malaga is now a fully-fledged business.