Manuel Butler shared his knowledge of British tourism with representatives of the sector on the Costa. / SUR

Spanish Tourism Board head is keen to attract the 6.5m British tourists who spend up to 30% more than average on their holidays

Manuel Butler, Director of the Spanish Tourism Office in London, says this will be the first peak season with arrivals from the UK at 2019 levels and is confident that there will be no problems post-Brexit

Pilar Martínez

He is an expert in tourism. His career, which has included being the head of Turespaña in 2012 and CEO of the World Tourism Organisation (WTO), proves that. Manuel Butler, who is a qualified naval engineer, runs the Spanish Tourism Office in London, a post he held previously between 1999 and 2004. At a recent meeting with businesses from the Malaga tourism sector, which was organised by the Costa del Sol tourist board, Butler confirmed that British tourism is returning to pre-pandemic levels and he made some important points about the return of the principal source market for the destination. He is very clear that British tourists must go home with lovely memories of their re-encounter with the Costa del Sol, and he says, "We have to welcome these tourists with open arms."

Are we going to see the keenly awaited recovery of British tourism this summer?

The figures for the first quarter of this year were nowhere near normal, but it looks as if this summer Spanish destinations will return to 2019 levels in terms of British tourists. A little lower or a little higher, maybe, but yes, back to pre-pandemic figures.

He is keen to attract the 6.5 million British tourists who spend up to 30% more than average on their holidays

And how is the situation looking for the Costa del Sol?

I have been checking the movements of tour operators and airlines, and everything is focused on Malaga airport and the Costa del Sol. This destination has a fantastic reputation, from Malaga city all along the coast and, as well, even the inland area is starting to get more traction. During the pandemic, which of course is not over yet, people have shown that they want to be out in the open air. The Costa del Sol tourist board is also doing a commendable job promoting the rural areas of this region.

This looks like being the first normal summer in terms of the British market for two years. What message do you have for the destination and the tourism sector ?

You have to bear in mind that the British are our main customers and it has been hard for them, not being able to travel abroad for two years, especially with the climate in their own country. We have to welcome them with open arms and offer them a special experience, or detail, or a happy memory to take home with them: for example how nice the staff were in the hotel reception or the restaurant. I think that is the key. We have to be very conscious of the fact that we need to make them feel wanted.

Airlines have been warning about potential problems at passport control for passengers from the UK, now that Britain is no longer an EU country and due to the consequences of Brexit, during this first summer of normality. Does that situation worry you?

I know that more staff have been assigned to passport control and some processes at the airports have been automated. We will have to stay on our toes to make sure there are no problems this first summer since Brexit, and that everything goes smoothly.

Portugal has decided to treat British tourists as if they were from an EU country; what effect is that likely to have for the Costa del Sol and other destinations in Spain?

It isn't going to be positive. It might be neutral or it might be negative. We will have to see.

As Spain has so many British tourists, is the government not thinking of doing something similar to Portugal?

So far I have had no indication of that, but that doesn't mean it won't happen.

What is the profile of a British tourist now, after two years of pandemic? Are they keener on sustainability, are they more demanding...?

Sustainability is very important and so is a personalised product. I believe that tourism has to take a step forward as some other industries have done, towards more personalised marketing. By that, I mean we need to try to satisfy the needs of specific consumers and look for those who are the most interesting types of visitor for the destination. We must listen to the consumer much more. That's why I say it is so important to refocus the whole of tourism on the people.

To what extent is sustainability a determining factor when the British are considering where to go on holiday?

If there are two destinations that are similar in quality and price, and one is sustainable and the other is not, the customer will be more attracted to the sustainable one. That trend is going to become more important, although at the moment price is still the main factor. We are convinced that sustainability will become a predominant factor, which is why tourism needs to work on making certain facts known, such as that the hotels on the Costa del Sol have reduced their energy consumption by such-and-such an amount, or have reduced their carbon footprint by so much, and are taking measures such as putting an end to single-use plastics. Rather than talk about huge sums of investment, it is better to demonstrate what is being done in order to move forward in terms of sustainability.

What impact could the Russian invasion of Ukraine have on the British market?

Turkey is the country most affected by Russia invading Ukraine because it is a very popular holiday destination for the Russians. Only a tiny part of that clientele will go to Turkey now, so to attract other visitors it is likely to reduce its prices this summer. That will mean that some British tourists will choose to go there, and also some Germans.

How do you attract British tourists who have higher spending power?

Through marketing and big data. Turespaña already has that knowledge because it carried out a major campaign in Germany. It is a matter of clearly segmenting clients who spend more and are most oriented towards environmental sustainability. If you know where those clients are and what their consumption patterns are, it's a question of adapting the marketing to that specific group. In the UK we are talking about 6.5 million people who travel abroad on average three times a year. In other words, we are talking about 18 or 19 million trips a year. They are a very important part of it because they also spend between 20 and 30 per cent more than the average British tourists who visit Spanish destinations at present.

And the Costa del Sol could also benefit from that...

Of course. We have to try to attract that type of tourists.

What other niches are opening up in this country?

Working from home, which is actually more than a niche; it is an until now undiscovered market. Offering that facility would be a great opportunity for the Costa del Sol because of the climate, infrastructure and gastronomy. I have seen a lot of interest among professional people in basing themselves in Malaga, and we are going to set to work on making inroads into that market.