The coronavirus pandemic has changed our way of life and has led to new trends in how we spend our time. One of these is active tourism, which in many cases is something that people have recently rediscovered, while for others it is completely new.
Long journeys to other countries or continents for holidays have been set aside in favour of visits to villages or areas closer to home, and being outdoors is considered safer with regard to the Covid-19 virus.
Canyoning, hiking and rafting are some of the activities which have become very popular in regions such as Valencia, Castilla y León and Andalucía, where Malaga is a favourite location.
“For 90 per cent of the companies, the situation has been good. Campsites and hotels haven’t been doing so well, but in general there has been a real boom in active tourism,” says Catalina Moral, who is the president of Andalucía Ecoactiva, the Andalusian federation of active tourism and ecotourism companies.
“Many people are choosing rural and adventure tourism now and because they don’t want to travel far they are getting to know their own area or province better, which they weren’t doing before,” she says.
After good results in 2021, active tourism companies are looking forward to a summer with a high demand for their services this year. Their aim is to consolidate and maintain this clientele, and they also want regulation of the sector to be updated to guarantee its sustainability, in terms of the environment as well as job creation and new investments.
In Spain, the active tourism sector has a turnover of 750 million euros, with 5,000 companies and over 40,000 workers, according to the National Association of Active Tourism Companies (Aneta).
In Andalucía, there are more than 1,260 active tourism companies and 99 dedicated to ecotourism, with more than 1,000 employees and a turnover of 175 million euros.
Malaga has the most companies (around 260), followed by Cadiz with 255 and Almeria with 123, according to figures from Andalucía Ecoactiva.
“Walking, for example, didn’t used to be so popular and now there is a huge demand for it. We have a lot of clients who live in this area and from elsewhere in the province,” says Catalina Moral.
The interest in walking in Malaga province is partly due to the Gran Senda, or Great Trail, a hiking route which passes through over 50 municipalities and is divided into 35 stages. Altogether it covers over 850 kilometres and is done by 1.3 million people a year.
The 35 stages of this route join the GR-249, the central network which connects all the trails, and the extensively varied countryside offers people the chance to combine hiking with other activities along the way.
“This type of unguided walking through the countryside is very fashionable. People from Malaga want to explore their province now,” says Antonio Martín, who runs Triángulo Activo, a company which opened last year and operates near the Caminito del Rey.
“We did very well in 2021 and demand has doubled now. We are also receiving bookings from people abroad this year,” he says.
According to data from the Diputación de Malaga (the provincial authority), there are 5,600 rural tourism establishments, with 48,739 beds in the province this year. This is 5.2% more than in 2020 and 10.8% more than in 2019.
Anyone walking the Great Trail will also find self-catering accommodation, hostels, campsites, bars, restaurants, tourist offices, shops and active tourism businesses, all contributing to the rural economy.
People taking part in rural tourism in 2021 spent an estimated 739,8 million euros, which was 158.3% more than in 2020, although still 20.9% less than in 2019.
The number of tourists who visited rural Malaga last year was also significant: 853,250 people, more than double those who came in 2020.
“During the pandemic we saw that there was a market for this and demand was constantly increasing. There is a lot of interest in guided tours of villages, vías ferratas and paragliding,” says Antonio Martín.
In addition to the growing interest in the rural world, Malaga can now boast its first National Park: the Sierra de las Nieves, which now benefits from the highest environmental protection in Spain.
This ‘step up’ from a Natural Park has brought with it considerable improvements to the area, and several active tourism companies are based there.
“We had some very bad months, but at times when the virus has abated we have seen how enthusiastic people have been about getting out into the countryside, people who have never shown the slightest interest in it in the past are now realising what they have been missing,” says Elena González of Aventúrate Sierra de las Nieves, and she says the activity which is most in demand at the moment is canyoning, although hiking, potholing and 4x4 routes are also very popular.
One of the latest additions to this company’s catalogue of activities is cycle routes through the National Park, but on electric bikes.
“It’s a comfortable and sustainable way of reaching the highest points in the park. It’s something new which we have only recently started offering, but there is quite a lot of interest,” says González.
Actividades en Sierra de las Nieves is another company which works in the National Park. Its level of business dropped in the past few years because they were working with foreign clients and schools.
“At that point we realised we needed to attract local people, so we began by offering gastronomy workshops and walking routes around the area. Now, a lot of people have come along because they want to explore more of the countryside near their homes,” says Clara Freiherr, who is one of the people who set up the project.
She says this year it is noticeable that foreign visitors are coming back to the Sierra de las Nieves, and schools are starting to organise excursions again.