By Staff writer
It is no secret that Madrid is not the most popular European destination with Middle Eastern travellers, but with effective marketing, the vibrant city could become an appealing alternative to other tired and tested capitals
As a growing number of international destinations become more accessible to the Middle East market, the regionâ€™s consumers are becoming travel-savvy and are increasingly looking for new places to visit that are not so well trodden by the tourist flock.
Madrid could be the answer.
The Spanish capital has always proved a popular weekend getaway destination for Spaniards and Europeans, as well as a port of call for US tourists embarking on a summer European tour, all of whom are drawn to the cityâ€™s majestic architecture and impressive collection of museums.
However, the Middle East market and its travelling fraternity have yet to discover what Madrid has to offer as a leisure destination, but there are inklings of interest this summer, which could signal that times are changing.
â€œThis season people are travelling a lot to Europe in general, so Madrid (and the rest of Spain) has been popular, but not as popular as some countries,â€ says Amita Dongre, senior travel consultant, Sharaftravel, Bur Dubai.
â€œSince there are few direct flights into Madrid, you normally have to take an indirect flight; Qatar Airways has some good fares and connections into Madrid via Doha. Other options would be Air France or KLM.â€
Although the lack of direct flights are an obstacle, the low number of people visiting Madrid from the Middle East has more to do with the absence of marketing campaigns promoting the city in this region, as opposed to lack of interest.
â€œMore awareness must be created for Spain in general as itâ€™s a beautiful destination, which has the potential become as popular as many other European countries that are more visited,â€ says Dongre.
The city is packed with art galleries and museums; not necessarily the number one priority for Arab nationals, but a big draw for ex-pats who can spend days wandering around exploring.
The world famous Prado Museum is home to works of art by some of Spainâ€™s most celebrated artists, including Goya, Velasquez and El Greco, while close by, the Reina Sofia National Art Centre Museum houses works by Picasso and Dali.
For Arab visitors, the numerous shopping districts are crammed with exclusive shops and designer brands, particularly the Barrio de Salamanca in the heart of the city.
Around the major tourist sites such as the historic Plaza Mayor, the Puerta del Sol, and the Palacio Real, the streets are crammed with shops, and on Sundays, an open-air flea market fills the streets around the Plaza de Cascorro.
But Madrid is not all leafy parks and cobbled plazas; the lively city has a popular cafÃ© society scene, and bars and restaurants are crammed into every side street.
Dongre says the mixture of nightlife and cultural activities makes Madrid a destination that will appeal to Arab nationals and ex-pats.
â€œMadrid is not just a cultural destination; it is also a lively metropolis with many cafes and discotheques that are open late into the night.
So itâ€™s basically a good blend of history and a lively city life,â€ she explains.
Qatar Airways launched its inaugural flight between Doha and Madrid in December, although at the outset the service stopped in Rome en-route.
On March 26 the carrier introduced a three-times-per-week direct service, making it the only carrier to connect Madrid and the Middle East with a direct flight, until last month when Saudi Arabian Airlines introduced a direct service from Jeddah to Madrid every Tuesday, as part of its summer schedule.
â€œWe have passengers from all the Gulf countries using our direct flights to Madrid,â€ says Marimar Laveda, sales manager Spain, Qatar Airways.
â€œThe culture, history, food, hospitality, and the entertainment that Madrid has to offer is of great interest for Arab nationals.â€
Laveda says inbound traffic mainly comprises Arab nationals who live in Spain, returning home for a holiday.
Although the Middle East does a roaring trade with several large European markets in terms of both inbound and outbound travel, Spain is yet to catch on.
â€œThe Middle East is not the first priority for Spain,â€ explains Eulogio Bordas, president of THR International Tourism Consultants, based in Spain.
â€œSpain is concentrating on markets with high volume, like Germany and England.
Of course, Spain is interested in attracting clients from the Middle East; they are good clients, very nice people and high spenders, but the promotional budget is limited.â€
According to Bordas, who boasts more than 30 years experience in tourism consultancy, attending trade fairs is not enough to successfully market a destination, and until more airlines launch direct flights between Spain and the Middle East, growth will be limited.
â€œParticipating in one tourist fair and producing 10,000 pamphlets and organising two fam trips; this is not a serious way of promoting a destination in a market,â€ he emphasises.
Spainâ€™s tourism promotion board, Turespana, had a global marketing budget of around EUR 138.2 million (US $172.8 million) for 2006, of which EUR 71.6 million ($89.5 million) was spent on direct investment in campaigns for tourism promotion abroad.
However, the Middle East has not featured extensively in those campaigns, and Turespana is yet to open an office in the region.
â€œI personally think that the Middle East should be promoted, from priority B to priority A; but I am not the minister,â€ adds Bordas.
Madrid welcomed 375,000 visitors in May; 6.8% of the total number of visitors to Spain for the month. The majority of that comprised visitors from France, the UK, and Portugal.
In the first five months of 2006, the city hosted 1.5 million visitors, 18.7% more than in 2005, but the number of those who originated from the Middle East was negligible.
â€œWe donâ€™t have figures on tourists from the Middle East,â€ explains Laura Cuenca Castellanos, head of media for the Madrid Tourism Board (MTB).
â€œThe National Institute for Statistics doesnâ€™t provide us with this data because the figures are very low.
â€œIt is true that is the number [of visitors from the Middle East] is growing significantly, especially from the MICE segment, but right now, all our efforts to open markets are directed to Russia, Eastern Europe, China, and India.â€
According to Castellanos, the best time to visit Madrid is from May to June, and September to October, avoiding the hot summer months when temperatures can reach 40Âº.
Because of the cityâ€™s high altitude (it is the highest capital of Europe), evenings tend to be cool, and locals venture out to enjoy eating in the open air.
Hoteliers at some of Madridâ€™s top-end properties can provide insight into the popularity of the city with Middle East guests.
At the Hotel Villa Magna Park Hyatt property in Madridâ€™s stylish Salamanca neighbourhood, occupancy figures for 2005 indicate that just 4.1% of guests originated from the region.
â€œHowever, this figure is distorted by the Embassy of Qatar, which used some of the rooms as their Embassy headquarters,â€ explains MarÃa FernÃ¡ndez, marketing and communications coordinator for the hotel.
â€œMiddle East guests are mainly Arab nationals, mostly from diplomatic delegations.â€
However, she notes that a small number of visitors from the GCC do visit Madrid independently and are considered top end clients.
â€œAlthough the Middle East room night production is not very big, it is a high-yield market as these delegations or guests are high spenders and usually stay in suites,â€ she explains.
In addition, due to the well-established relationship between the hotel and diplomatic guests from the Middle East, staff are trained to provide a highly personalised service and have a â€œprofound knowledgeâ€ of the Arab culture.
According to Paloma Garcia, press and PR officer at The Westin Palace Madrid, the number of Middle East visitors is even lower, and if recent growth is anything to go by, will remain that way in the near future.
â€œAlthough Arab nationals only make up around 2% of the guests at the hotel, the opening of the new Terminal 4 in Barajas Airport is likely to cause an increase in the number of visitors from the Middle East,â€ she says.
The Westin has witnessed an insignificant 0.5% increase in visitor numbers from the Middle East this year, most of whom visited for business rather then leisure, Garcia explains.
â€œThe preferred destination in Spain for Arab nationals is Andalusia, but some of them come here to hunt in the villages near Madrid.â€
â€œThose who do stay in the city spend large amounts of money on shopping and accommodation; they love our Royal Suite.â€