Branch of Centre Pompidou in Malaga, Spain
Branch of Centre Pompidou in Malaga, Spain
Gaëlle Lucas

MALAGA — There's a classic children's song in France that says a lot about how the world sees Spain. "Dans mon pays d'Espagne, olé! Y" a un soleil comme ça!" (In Spain, my country, olé! There's a sun like this). The song also touches on things like bullfighting, the sea, flamenco dancing — all the Spanish clichés.

While there is certainly more to Spain than "sol y playa" (sun and beach) — and bulls and flamenco, for that matter — it's also true that those particular ingredients have served the southern European country well, helping it take off in the 1960s as a popular mass tourism destination.

More than a half-century later, Torremolinos, a beach resort on the Costa del Sol, where it all started, is still jam packed with holiday goers. Dozens of tourists wearing shorts and flip-flops relax on café terraces or meander down to the beach along steep and narrow streets lined with cheap restaurants and souvenir shops. Pop music blares all around.

But in Málaga's historic center, 30 minutes away by train, Annette and her two adolescent children are expanding their horizons beyond the busy beach scene. "We're also here for the culture," the Swedish mother says. The teenagers take turns photographing each other next to a metal statue of Pablo Picasso, who seems to be enjoying the sea breeze outside his childhood home.

José María Luna, head of the Picasso Foundation, which operates several area museums, says the city made a conscious decision, starting in the 2000s, to take advantage of its historic link to the world famous painter. Picasso was born in Málaga in 1881. The idea was to bring tourism traffic into the city center, which up to that point was mostly just a place where people worked.

"On weekends and in the summer, things were at a standstill," Francisco Moro, director of the four-star hotel MS Maestranza Málaga, recalls. "The town was dark." At that time, the only hotel customers, he says, "were there for business."

Thanks to this bet on culture, the city has become a destination unto itself — with a 127% increase in visitors in just 10 years, according to José María Luna.

Málaga now boasts 36 museums, including the Picasso Museum and the Contemporary Art Center, which opened in 2003, and branches of the Pompidou Center (France) and St. Petersburg Art Museum (Russia), which opened earlier this year. It also restored its historical center and modernized the port, which used to be closed but is now a favored promenade area. Cruise ships drop their anchors there to disembark hordes of vacationers, some of whom have already begun visiting the nearby "Cubo," the glass and steel cubic structure that serves as headquarter for the Málaga Pompidou Center.

Victim of its own success?

Málaga and Torremolinos may be a study in contrasts, but they're both, of course, trying to bank on the same industry, tourism, which directly and indirectly generates more than 15% of Spain's GDP, according to the World Travel & Tourism Council (WTTC).

The sector is doing particularly well right now as the country rebounds from its deep economic crisis. Tourism revenues increased by 2.9% in 2014, thanks in large part to a 7% rise in the number of foreign visitors. More than 65 million people traveled to Spain last year, making it the third most visited country in the world after France and the United States.

Industry experts say, nevertheless, that Spain ought to revisit its particular tourism model and adapt to new trends. European tourists, according to Josep Francesc Valls, the former director of the tourism management center of the Esade Business School, are spending less time at the beach these days and taking more off-season trips. Visitors from emerging countries such as China, Brazil or Russia also want more out of their vacations that just sunbathing, he argues.

Unfortunately, says Valls, Spain has been slow to react so far. "The problem," he says, "is that the success of "sol y playa" and the fact that Spain is traditionally a backup destination, especially since 9/11 or the 2011 Arab Spring, have prevented us from repositioning ourselves and develop alternative products."

Beginning to branch out

Málaga's recent efforts, in this sense, are an encouraging sign. To the "sol y playa" of the Costa del Sol, the city added culture and gastronomy. Bilbao, a former industrial town of the Basque Country, underwent a similar transformation, staring in the late 1990s with the opening of a branch of the Guggenheim museum. The building's unusual structure, designed by the architect Frank Gehry, attracted more than a million visitors in 2014.

There are other changes afoot as well. Urban tourism, for example, is booming in Spain, especially in historically rich places like Barcelona, Santiago de Compostela, Segovia and Cuenca. The country also has a competitive advantage in terms of infrastructure, with a large number of airports, a high-speed train and highways that enable traveling quite easily from one town to another in the country.

Gastronomy is another major asset, as Spain is a breeding ground for starred chefs. France had better watch out, especially as "the prices in starred restaurants are between 30% and 40% lower in Spain," says Valls. The same goes for city hotels.

"Sol y playa," nevertheless, still makes up the lion's share (70%) of Spain's tourism industry. "With Málaga and its museums, we haven't transformed our model, we completed it," says Manuel Ruiz, president of the regional nightlife entrepreneurs association. Or as Francisco Moro puts it: "Málaga and the Costa del Sol take mutual advantage of each other."

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