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A previous edition of the World Travel Market.
A previous edition of the World Travel Market. / Salvador Salas

Andalucía, ready to test the British water

  • In the run-up to the biggest tourism fair in the world, destinations in Andalucía are viewing this event as a litmus test for the future of this vital sector

  • An inevitable Brexit and the bankruptcy of Thomas Cook mark a turning point for the tourism industry

The World Travel Market (WTM) in London has always been important for Andalusian tourism and this year's event, which takes place from 4 to 8 November, will be especially so. The tourism sector in Andalucía knows that this WTM will be a type of litmus test at a time when Britain is about to leave the European Union, or, by the time it takes place, Brexit may already have happened. Everything will depend on how British prime minister Boris Johnson's plans evolve, and at present he is still insisting that Brexit will happen on 31 October.

All this is happening at a time when the British market is marked by uncertainty, and that is a bad sign in what is the top source market for Andalucía, with figures far above the second, which is Germany. The statistics speak for themselves; they show how dependent Andalusian tourism is on the UK and they make clear the consequences that the slightest disruption can have on this volatile industry.

The Costa del Sol is also the preferred destination for British travellers who choose to holiday in Andalucía and 76 per cent of the hotel bookings in the region are in this area. Visitors from the UK represent nearly seven million overnight stays in hotels on the Costa, which is nine per cent of the figure for Spain as a whole.

Andalucía, ready to test the British water

After Thomas Cook went into liquidation, the Confederación Española de Hoteles (CEHAT) expressed its appreciation for British tourists, which have always been considered the cornerstone of Spanish tourism, and called for "an urgent communication campaign in the United Kingdom to make it clear how much the Spanish tourism sector is grateful to British visitors and its wish that they will continue to come to this country for their holidays". They said they want to make it clear that "the tourist destinations, our beaches, our hotels and restaurants, our people, our thousands of jobs are not responsible nor to blame for the arguable management of a major company in recent years, which is why it is very painful to see the image of British tourists at the airports, expanded by much of the media which talks with grandiloquence about the greatest repatriation since the Second World War, trying to give the impression that they are fleeing from our country, as if there had been a cataclysm". It is an image which also affects Andalucía and the Costa del Sol, although in these areas the impact of Thomas Cook going out of business has been lower.

The real Sword of Damocles which hangs over Andalusian tourism is the repercussion of Britain leaving the EU, and apart from the procedures tourists will need to follow in order to travel to Spain, the main stumbling block is the negotiation over air space, because British airlines which currently bring the most passengers to Malaga airport could be affected. The low-cost airline Easyjet is one example. Last year it moved nearly 2.2 million passengers to and from the Costa del Sol, second only to Ryanair.

Andalucía, ready to test the British water

Also amid this cloud of uncertainty about whether they will be considered third-country companies, and the limitations that would mean for their operations, are Iberia and its subsidiary Vueling, because they belong to the IAG group, formed after a merger between Iberia and British Airways. These companies, which are considered British, moved more than 4.6 million travellers through Malaga Airport last year, and a further 893,468 were transported by Jet2.com. The figure is a quarter of all passengers who have used Malaga Airport in 2019.

As a result of the uncertainty, Iberia is in the process of adapting its shareholding to European regulations so it is no longer considered British. The EU has insisted that if there is a hard Brexit it will be strict with airlines which are under British control, and they will no longer be able to fly in air space of member states as they do at present. The final date for this readjustment, when Iberia has to show that more than 50 per cent of its shares are in EU hands and not the UK as a non-EU country, is 24 October 2020. It will be an essential requirement if it wants to continue to operate flights between cities within the EU.

Andalucía, ready to test the British water

Aware of the importance of this year's WTM, the Costa del Sol will have a stand of its own for the second year as well as the space it shares with Andalucía. This is an initiative by the Tourism Forum, which is demanding that this event has the greatest institutional support at a time when it coincides with the electoral campaign in Spain and when the saying that "when the United Kingdom sneezes the Costa del Sol gets a cold", seems even more relevant than ever.

The WTM will set the rules of the game but at least the Costa del Sol, the nerve centre of British tourism in Andalucía, will be able to show some positive figures for this year which compensate for the reduction in 2018. Between January and July, 3.3 per cent more passengers arrived at Malaga Airport, and the airlines are expected to be offering about 4.6 per cent more seats between the Costa del Sol and the UK from August to January. The optimism is, however, somewhat weighed down by the uncertainties of the market and the Junta is currently working on its Action Plan for Tourism 2020, which includes an increase in promotional activities.

This year's World Travel Market in a few weeks' time will be the barometer which measures the severity of the impact of the divorce between the UK and the EU on tourism in Andalucía. It will be a decisive event.