Tourist industry shines through economic gloom

Key sector enjoyed a strong recovery last year

AGENCIES / A. S. Madrid 10 ENE 2012 - 20:16 CET

Tourism was one of the few bright spots in the Spanish economy last year as a jump in the number of overseas visitors helped create employment in a country still hemorrhaging jobs.

In a presentation of the sector's performance last year, Industry, Energy and Tourism Minister José Manuel Soria said the number of overseas arrivals last year climbed by 8.1 percent to 56.9 million.

Spending by tourists is estimated to have increased by the same amount to 53 billion euros, a figure that goes a long way to partly offsetting Spain's persistent trade deficit.

The minister said numbers were swelled by unrest in the Arab Spring, the weakness of the euro, which facilitated a recovery in the British market - Spain's biggest - and growing interest from the Nordic countries.

One of the main beneficiaries of the unrest in Egypt and Tunisia was the Canary Islands, where visitor numbers climbed 18.4 percent, followed by the Balearic Islands, with an increase of 10.4 percent. Visitors to Madrid fell 1 percent despite the pope's visit to the Spanish capital in August.

However, Soria warned the situation would not be as buoyant this year due to the expected slowdown in the economies of Spain's main markets in Europe. "There will be an increase in 2012, but much less notable," he said.

As Spain's jobless rate climbed to over 21 percent, the number of people working in the tourist industry signed up with the Social Security system increased by 0.9 percent to 195 million. The sector accounts for about 10 percent of Spain's GDP and a similar amount of the country's jobs.

Soria ruled out incentives to boost the sector such as a reduced valued-added tax rate for tourist activities because of the need to tackle the public deficit. "It would be good for the sector, but now is not the moment," he said.

The minister also said the government would consider privatizing the state's chain of over 90 hotels, or paradores, many of which are located close to historical monuments.

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