Checking out? Spanish hotels eye adults-only niche in tourism market
Many customers welcome move to veto kids, but legality doubts exist
There are no children running around, no loud tantrums in sight. Swimming in the pool is no longer a gymkhana around life preservers and plastic crocodiles. High chairs and cribs are nowhere to be seen. Even the decoration takes a few risks.
Spain is witnessing a rise in hotels and restaurants that are off-limits to anyone under 16. The crisis is fueling a minority trend that is not without controversy, but which reflects a growing specialization of the leisure industry.
For entrepreneurs it is a way to diversify their business, but some family associations call it a discriminatory practice.
There are 240,000 bars, 16,000 cafeterias, 85,000 restaurants and 16,000 hotels in Spain. There are establishments for learning English, for sports training, for pets, for vegetarians, for gays and lesbians and more. We live in an increasingly segmented society and customers are more demanding, which forces business owners to find new angles to attract people in a sector where supply outstrips demand.
"To us, differentiation is an element that improves competitiveness and positioning in the market. Besides, it is part of a business' freedom to present its product," says Emilio Gallego, secretary general of the Spanish Federation of the Hospitality Industry (FEHR).
But it is unclear whether the decision to ban children is legal. Some experts cite Article 14 of the Constitution, which prohibits discrimination on grounds of gender, race, religion or opinion, to prove that the measure is unlawful.
But Marc Carrillo, a professor of constitutional law at Pompeu Fabra University, holds that an establishment's decision to ban minors (mostly children) "can be in line with the Constitution." Carrillo says that in a private setting the principle of equality is not the same as in a public one; also, the right of admission is a consequence of entrepreneurial freedom; thirdly, age discrimination is not so if there is a legitimate goal supported by national legislation.
"If a given customer does not share an establishment's admission regulations, he or she is free to find another establishment that is more permissive when it comes to this specific criterion," explains Carrillo.
Tourism experts agree that vetoing minors from certain business premises would be inconvenient if there was a limited supply of traditional services. "But Spain has a highly developed hotel supply all over the country, with options for everyone," says Gallego. "If a few companies out of 370,000 choose to focus on an adult public and prefer not to accept minors, I don't see that as a problem because the total is far less than the number of hotels that specialize in families."
Half a dozen hotel chains are using this formula, especially in holiday areas or far from urban centers. One of the pioneers is Viva Hoteles, which has been catering to adults for six years.
Although it also has traditional hotels, Viva Hoteles counts on two establishments in Mallorca that are for adults only.
"We offer both products, which are complementary," says Antoni Homar, sales director for the chain. "We have customers who first come with their children, and later return alone. They don't want to deal with other people's children, because they left their own at home."
Industry companies say there are customers willing to pay a premium for the benefit of enjoying a child-free space. "It's about filling another market niche, because the hospitality sector tends toward greater segmentation," says Rafael Serra, president of the Catalan Union of Specialized Travel Agencies (UCAVE).
In the case of Hotel Sandos Mónaco, in Benidorm, managers took advantage of renovation work in 2009 to change the business around and keep minors out. "We had a few regular customers with children who were angry and disappointed at the change, but in general most people prefer it this way," says Miguel Marguineda, former communications officer for the hotel.
A couple from Bilbao, aged 56 and 54 (they declined to have their names published), said they were pleasantly surprised when they stayed at a hotel that did not allow children inside, even though they were unaware of this policy.
"By day two, we thought all the peace and quiet was kind of odd. My wife and I were surprised about it but also happy," says the husband. The couple have two grown-up children of their own, and believe that this sort of thing is to be appreciated, "especially now, when you are living in the midst of daily anguish and you want some peace."
But the Association of Large Families of the Basque Countries, Hirukide, is concerned that the matter might be taken further still: "It's not the same vetoing a child at a hotel, where you have to book in advance, as being banned from a cafeteria because you have a child with you," says the association president, Natalia Díez-Caballero. In any case, this group feels that parents should simply use common sense when faced with places that cater to specific age or interest groups.
Last year, Hirukide brought to light the case of a woman who tried to walk into a cafeteria in Vitoria (Alava) but was turned away because she was in the company of her grandson. The woman filed a complaint against the business. "We thought it was a discriminatory practice, but above all we were worried that there might be a proliferation of places like this one. It's like creating a phobia and a negative attitude towards mothers and fathers," said the president, adding that it should be the parents' responsibility to leave the premises when their kids become a nuisance.
Some people see a problem with the way children are raised today. "The basic problem is our children's education, which depends on us, not on school," writes Catalan journalist Albert Castillón on his blog. Castillón adds that if no human being should be discriminated on the basis of gender, religion or race, it is even more cruel to be discriminated against for being a child.