Spanish five-star hotels are serving up white rice for breakfast as Spain offers quicker visas and seeks more direct flights from China to tap into the surging wave of Chinese tourists.
When Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy visited China in September, he announced that visa applications from the country’s travelers would be processed within 48 hours. The government is also in talks with Asian airlines to boost traffic through Madrid’s underused airport by offering reduced fees and promoting Spain as a hub for travel to Latin America.
So far only one airline, Air China, offers direct flights between Spain and China seven times a week. In contrast, Italy has 28 direct weekly flights to China, France has 70 and Germany 87. While Chinese travelers usually visit several countries during a trip to Europe, they are unlikely to include Spain if they land in another country because of its geographic location, said University of London lecturer Keven Lathan, author of a book on Chinese tourism in Europe.
“Spain’s location is less central. You have to add two to three days to make it feasible. There is not much you can do about it,” he said at a recent tourism fair in Madrid.
China has been the world’s fastest-growing source of tourists over the past decade due to rising incomes and the easing of restrictions on foreign travel, according to the Madrid-based U.N. World Tourism Organization. Over 100 million Chinese are expected to make trips abroad this year.
Spain is the world’s third-most-visited country, after France and the United States, and has long been a favorite sunshine destination for Europeans who flock to its beaches.
But the country received just 288,000 visitors from China last year, according to tourist board Turespana. By comparison, the United States welcomed 1.8 million Chinese visitors in 2013, the last year for which figures are available, while France received over 1.2 million Chinese tourists that year.
“We are clearly missing the train of Chinese tourism,” said Hilario Alfaro, the president of the Madrid Business Forum, a lobby group.
While travel industry leaders welcomed Spain’s moves to attract Chinese tourists, they lamented that Madrid is lagging behind other Western nations.
Spain has just three consulates in China that can issue entry visas, compared to eight in France, said Alfaro. And Spain requires Chinese applicants to pick up their visas in person, which discourages would-be travelers from cities that do not have a consulate, he added.
France offers home delivery of entry visas, while the U.S. allows them to be picked up at bank branches across China.
“You should give a medal or build a monument for any Chinese who manages to arrive in Spain directly from China, since it is so difficult,” Alfaro said.
Tourism accounts for 10.9 percent of Spain’s economic output and 1 in 9 jobs. The tourism sector has taken steps to adapt to the tastes of Chinese visitors, who are one of the biggest spenders among foreign visitors to Spain, as part of a broader strategy to attract more urban travel.
Madrid’s Thyssen-Bornemisza Museum, which houses many 19th-century impressionist paintings, last year started offering maps in Mandarin, the first major museum in the Spanish capital to do so. Spanish department store chain El Corte Ingles’ flagship Madrid store offers special services for Chinese tourists, including a gift guide in Mandarin and a top-end Chinese restaurant.
Some hotels are also adapting by offering small comforts to please Chinese visitors. Madrid’s five-star Silken Puerta America hotel revamped the menu of its cafeteria to cater to Chinese tastes, including items such as noodles with chicken, dim sum and white rice at breakfast.
The hotel also offers access to a Chinese TV station and Madrid travel guides in Mandarin. Rooms with Chinese guests are equipped with an electric tea kettle. The avant-garde hotel received over 6,000 Chinese guests last year, more than double the 2013 figure. It is one of a handful of Spanish hotels that have obtained a certificate labeling them as “Chinese friendly” because they have met a list of requirements deemed necessary to adapt to Chinese tastes.
“We have to adapt so the client feels at home,” said the spokeswoman for the Silken hotel chain, Sara Diaz.