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LA STAMPA

Spain’s Sad And Splendid Summer Of Austerity

A glimmering reminder that Europe still has some spare money (and time) to spend: even as Spain's economy spirals out of control, vacations are still on -though shorter, cheaper and closer to home.

On the beach in Barcelona (C.Y.R.I.L)
On the beach in Barcelona (C.Y.R.I.L)
Marco Alfieri

MALAGA - At the train station in this southern Spanish resort town, a woman named Carmen has just disembarked. "We're here," she says. She had set off from her hometown of Cordoba with her boyfriend Antonio a mere 50 minutes ago. The trip to her vacation destination has never been so short. "This year, this is it. No vacation abroad. My father is unemployed. We'll spend a week on the Costa del Sol and that's it."

All of Spain is feeling the pressure of the euro crisis. Everyone's nightmare is the widening spread, the extra yield that investors demand to hold Spanish bonds instead of benchmark German bonds. After 15 years of a booming economy, many Spaniards are forced to face a summer of austerity. Those who aren't giving up their vacation altogether are picking tourist spots close to home, like Carmen and Antonio. Others are heading back to their hometowns to visit their relatives, as they did when they were children. "I haven't been in El Pinillo for 25 years," says Raul, an employee of the public sector who has just arrived from Sevilla.

In the southern region of Andalusia at least 1.5 million people are unemployed, and the crisis has hit hard. But the beautiful seaside helps to attract tourists.

Tourism, which accounts for 11% of the Gross Domestic Product (GDP) is keeping the country afloat. In 2011, 57 million people visited Spain. In the first six months of 2012, this number grew by 2.5%, bringing in a total 20 billion euros.

Youngsters, retirees and foreign families continue to arrive at a steady stream along the 160 kilometers of coast from Nerja to Manilva. On Saturdays, the number of arrivals peak. "Scandinavian people are the biggest spenders, at 1,239 euros each, followed by the Dutch and German, who would like to kick us out of the euro," says a tourism office employee with an ironic smile. On any given Saturday afternoon, in front of the cathedral of Plaza de Obispo in Malaga, you get a glimpse of what holidays are like here: Italians and Germans sitting at the tables of a Guinness Pub, English teenagers yelling at each other, Dutch families with strollers, cruise passengers and Russian couples taking pictures in front of the fountain. Many Spanish people are here too, constrained to settle for a local vacation.

A small train brings the tourists from Malaga to the beaches. At the airport stop, the people who flew in on low-cost flights get on the train. They are mainly from the UK and northern Europe.

The only sector to survive

Along the Costa del Sol, each village has its own tourist speciality. Adult couples stay in Malaga for cultural tourism, before moving on to Granada and Sevilla for a quick swim in Malagueta and tapas in the old town. Youngsters and gays prefer the "movida," the nightlife, in Torremolinos. In Benalmadena you find mostly families and retirees. In Fuengirola and Mijas you have the English and Scandinavians who bought houses here during the heyday when a little money would go a long way towards a small house in sunny Spain.

Wealthy Spaniards are in Marbella, mainly around the Josè Banus harbor which looks like a miniature Montecarlo. Here Italian entrepreneur Flavio Briatore has just opened a new "Billionaire" nightclub. Marbella seems to be back to its golden age when the mayor was Jesus Gil, a developer and owner of the Atletico Madrid soccer club, who eventually died in 2004 after many scandals.

Torremolinos is the most popular resort of the coast. Employees of the Grand Hotel Cervantes confirm that the market is holding on. Tourism, says one hotel staffer, "is doing well during weekends and less well during the week, but we are the only sector to resist."

At 5 p.m., waiters are eating at the restaurant El Velero. "Luckily, today we worked a lot, after three slow days," says one. Nearby, in a small street, Rafael, an old man who owns Exotic Tour, a company that rents out cars and sells tickets for local amusement parks. "It's not that we are not working. We are working less," he says. "At the restaurant people ask for one dish instead of two. They bring their own food instead of eating at a cafe. They go to the public beaches instead of the private ones."

When happy hour comes, the promenade gets crowded. Young people head to the nightclubs and Polish families take a walk with their young children. English and Italian people are still playing sports in the sand. "With the recent troubles in North Africa, many are coming to our beaches," says a representative of the islands' hotel association. Rising airport taxes, though, is a reason of concern. Low-cost airline tickets might increase by up to 40%. "Hopefully we won't lose the last-minute vacationers," says one. "It would be much worse for us than the spread."

Read the article in Italian in La Stampa.

Photo - C.Y.R.I.L

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