Why Go To Spain?
Harry King retired from corporate life in Britain to live in Spain. He would do so all over again if faced with the same decision and now lives near Alicante. He is the author of a number of books on Spain.
A NEW AGE OF DISCOVERY
Why have so many northern Europeans discovered modern Spain? First there was the cheap package holidays of the 1960s, a tourist attraction different from rivals Italy and France. Then visitors slowly discovered that the country’s old image as a backward, under-developed, economically poor country dominated by the Catholic Church was no longer true. Before any one realised it, by the 1990s Spain had taken on the mantle of a prosperous modern European nation with many benefits and advantages not available back home. It had sun! Not only sun, but a relaxed lifestyle and a cheaper cost of living too.
HOLIDAYS FROM NORTHERN EUROPE
Most Europeans obtain direct experience of foreign countries from tourism. Since the 1960s, there has been remarkable growth in foreign holidays. This has been fuelled by reductions in real prices and the increased understanding of foreign holidays as ‘positional goods’. The two dominant nationalities of European holidaymakers are British and German. In 1965 the number of British people going abroad was five million: the number increased by 140% in 1980 and doubled again by 1995. Equally impressive are the statistics for the proportion of the UK population taking a holiday abroad –13% in 1971 and 35% in 1995. Well over half the British population has taken a foreign vacation at some time. Those who holiday abroad tend to be younger, more prosperous and of higher socio-economic status than those who holiday in Britain. The growth in international tourism from Germany has been even more rapid. Whereas only 5.8 million went abroad in 1962, this rose to 18.3 million in 1985 and to 40.7 million in 1995 (partly boosted by reunification).
There are four major types of tourists seeking a different experience from their travels:
- The organised mass tourist who takes an inclusive holiday which offers protection within an environmental bubble. Familiarity dominates novelty.
- The individual mass tourist who is more autonomous and follows a flexible itinerary. Familiarity dominates, but some novelty is sought.
- The explorer investigates new areas and tries to get off the beaten track. Novelty is sought, but if it becomes stressful this tourist will retreat into the familiarity of the environmental bubble.
- The back to nature drifter, who avoids any kind of commercial tourism establishment, seeks contact with native culture and tries to live the same way as locals.
One other relevant feature has been the growth of winter sun holidays. Some 12 million British holiday visits are made between October and March each year to various overseas locations. In general overseas winter holidays have been expanding at about twice the rate of summer sun holidays. Older people constitute an important element of this market, with 23% being aged 55 and over. There have also been other changes in the Mediterranean tourism market, notably an increase in self-catering. The experience of renting a villa or apartment may lead to the purchase of a holiday home to be used later for retirement.
The traditional Spanish package holiday, still enjoyed by many, consists of sand, sea and sun. Holiday reps efficiently escort people from the airport to a three or four-star hotel with half board accommodation, offer trips and sort out any problems. Tourists stay in their self-imposed environmental bubble. This type of holiday will always be the core of Spain’s tourist industry, but it has now peaked. It has spawned a massive expenditure to keep its visitors happy and to encourage them to visit again and again.
The Spanish holiday market is now segmented. Firstly into different types of accommodation such as hotels, timeshares, rented properties and holiday homes. Secondly into the traditional family holiday. Thirdly for special interest groups looking for culture, rural, walking, sporting or adventure holidays. Fourthly to encourage tourists away from the Costas to rural inland areas. To do this the Spanish Tourist Board have developed a number of concepts:
- Traditional sun, sea and sand.
- Espana Verde (Green Spain) covering the northern regions of the country embracing Asturias, Galicia, Cantabria and Pais Vasco.
- The Gold and Silver routes that are old Roman roads through the Spanish heartland.
- Eight Spanish cities recognised by UNESCO for their artistic and cultural legacy. They are Avila, Caceres, Cordoba, Cuenca, Salamanca, Santiago de Compostela, Segovia and Toledo. They are not major cultural cities such as Granada, but smaller, rural cities each with a wealth of history and culture, and a variety of customs.
- Short city breaks promoted to Alicante, Barcelona, Madrid, Palma, Granada, Salamanca, Santander, Santiago de Compostela, Seville, Toledo and Valencia.
A UNIVERSITY VIEW OF RETIREMENT
Most of Spain’s visitors are holiday makers, but many northern Europeans become permanent residents. The early trickle of migrants has become a steady flow, forming one of the main retirement locations for people from northern Europe. For this group of people climate is important, but another important reason is grounded in personal finances as there are considerable house price differentials between northern and southern Europe. Reasons given by people wishing to move permanently to Spain and researched by Sheffield University are published in their book entitled Sunset Lives:
- Climate and other aspects of the natural environment, such as landscape and clean air.
- The pace of life, feeling healthier, more relaxed, opportunities for golf, sailing and active sports.
- Lower living costs, housing costs, cheaper food, lower heating bills and lower taxes.
- The presence of a British community, many friends, a good social life, the opportunity for relatives to visit, and a friendly local population.
- Admiration for Spain, the country’s society and culture.
- Childhood or family links, including marriage to a Spaniard.
- Antipathy to the UK caused by high crime rates or poor social values, a general wish to live abroad or long-term expatriates with no wish to return to the UK.
- English is widely spoken with easy travel to the UK.
A BUILDING SOCIETY VIEW
More recently a report issued by an international branch of a UK Building Society stated an extra six million Britons will venture abroad to work or live by the year 2020. Their motivation is to reduce stress as many are working long hours in highly pressurised occupations. These Brits are already looking and researching destinations that can give them a more relaxed lifestyle and more leisure time. A breakdown of reasons indicates:
- 39% are searching for a better quality of life;
- 38% are searching for new experiences;
- 25% are searching for a new challenge.
Brits also have a growing appetite for overseas holidays, with Spain as their number one destination. This has increased their exposure to new experiences. People are becoming more dissatisfied with their lives and a trend for television programmes such as A Place in the Sun and No Turning Back emphasises the point. The TV experience is aimed at despondent Brits who want to make a new life with new challenges in another country.
The research forecasts that Britons will constantly be on the lookout to change their lifestyle. In the past, people may have moved abroad because of high unemployment levels in the UK –now they move to experience something new.
The concerns and biggest worries Brits have about moving and living overseas are:
- 59% said they would probably miss their family;
- 47% said the logistics of moving home;
- 45% said that healthcare would be a concern;
- 37% said language was an issue.
As Europe has easy border controls for entry, and travel is becoming cheaper, opportunities will increase for Britons moving abroad thus allowing more people to fulfil their dream of a new experience. The research also shows substantial differences of opinion between classes, with senior managers citing Spain and France as joint favourites whereas finance workers, manual staff and middle managers name Spain as their favourite.
PROS AND CONS OF LIFE IN SPAIN
It is hardly surprising that the overwhelming attraction of Spain is its excellent climate. Summer everywhere is hot, in some places very hot. In winter anywhere south of Valencia is mild, but surprisingly around Madrid it often drops to below freezing. Some parts of the Costa Blanca have been described by the World Health Organisation as having one of the healthiest climates in the world.
Climate should be a balance. Not too hot, not too cold, a little bit of rain to grow the crops, but not too much to deter people. Some snow in the mountains for recreational purposes, but not enough to affect communications. The influence of the Atlantic, the Mediterranean and Africa produces a varying climate. Northern Spain has lush green pastures. The Costas offer sun and sand coupled with the clear blue waters of the Mediterranean. The southern rolling hills of Andalusia are blisteringly hot in the summer. The Balearic and Canary Islands are always pleasant, the latter very mild in winter. Madrid, the capital, is either freezing or roasting. Cordoba in the south is known as the ‘frying pan’ of Europe.
The Mediterranean region has an ideal balance:
- 320 days of sunshine per year;
- 11.5 hours of sunshine per day in summer;
- 14 inches of rain per year;
- Average spring temperature seven to 27° centigrade;
- Average summer temperature 17 to 36° centigrade;
- Average autumn temperature nine to 30° centigrade;
- Average winter temperature one to 23° centigrade.
While northern Europe is being deluged with rain, battered by wind, its roads closed by snow and ice, you can almost guarantee that Alicante and Malaga will be bathed in sunshine. But not all of Spain enjoys a Mediterranean climate. Here are some less attractive statistics:
- San Sebastian –41 inches of rain per year;
- Madrid – average lowest winter temperature: -5° centigrade;
- Extremadura – average highest summer temperature – 41° centigrade.
While there may be other reasons for coming to Spain, climate is the big, big number one. It is healthy and makes one feel good. But despite Spain’s excellent climate, things occasionally go wrong. Once per year rainfall can be heavy and prolonged. Water runs off baked, hard soil into dry riverbeds and finally out to sea. As there are few urban drains, roads flood. Opposite is an extract from a recent newspaper article.
Cost of living
Spain is no longer the cheap and cheerful country it once was. The cost of living has increased considerably over the last decade. However, with the exception of large cities, the cost of living is still lower in coastal and rural areas than it is in the United Kingdom, Ireland, Germany and France. It is significantly lower than the cost of living in the Scandinavian countries and is on a par with Florida.
A dominant factor in such a comparison is the relationship between the Pound Sterling and the euro. Ex-pats who were paid in Sterling during the first few millennium years received unprecedented exchange rates of 1.7§ to the £. However these are unlikely to be repeated as European monetary integration continues.
Spain’s sunny geographical location, too, affects the cost of living. There is an abundance of locally-produced food and wine, not only fresh from the market garden of Europe, but also cheap and plentiful. The beneficial effect of sunshine on day-to-day living costs is truly amazing. Utility bill unit charges for electric and gas may be slightly high, but low demand more than compensates.
Something for everyone
There is more to life in Spain than the sun, sea and sand of the Costas. Only a few miles inland, traditional Spain opens up. The transformation is remarkable as high rise modern buildings, set in clean cities, are quickly left behind to be replaced by small white-walled villages and then, even further inland, by individual white houses scattered over hillsides. One such example is typified on the Costa del Sol where, a few miles from the city of Malaga, the white village of Competa is completely surrounded by thousands of individual white properties nestling on hillsides or sheltering in valleys.
Some beer and sandwich resorts, which in the past have received negative publicity, recognise their prime source of income is from tourism. They have now embarked on programmes to attract family groups. Spain, once home of the package holiday now has international entertainment, theme parks and top class restaurants. There really is something for everyone in Spain.
Anyone who has spent even a short time in Spain will know that its people are friendly, polite and welcoming. If you are polite, smile, and offer locals a greeting in their own language it will go a long way towards establishing and maintaining relationships.
Some people have been known to say this friendliness is superficial, asking the question ‘Have you ever been invited into a Spanish home?’ In some communities there is resentment to the new foreign invaders. This is valid and it would also be fair to say that in tourist resorts the desire to extract the maximum cash in the minimum time has eroded the natural charm of Spaniards. But it would be wrong to characterise the whole country with the behaviour of a few.
As one might expect there is a contrast between the older and younger generations. Elderly Spaniards will have endured the repression of the Franco years, may be illiterate and have worked in agriculture. In contrast younger Spaniards will be vibrant, computer literate and have a city based mentality that embraces new cosmopolitan values.
Today, social customs are changing. People are much less formal, but familiarity is still a hallmark of Spanish life. Old fashioned courtesy and formality are still the custom in rural areas. Great store is set by personal loyalty and friendship, but it is also very important to take account of the Spanish sense of honour and pride, which is easily offended. The extended family is the main social unit, with strong family ties.
Medical and dental facilities are among the best in Europe. There are many new hospitals staffed by highly qualified doctors and nurses. A high percentage of the cost for this service is provided from private resources. In addition to the doctor’s surgery, the chemist occupies a unique position in the medical hierarchy by providing remedies for simple ailments.
Spain does have a high petty crime rate. Homes have to be protected by security grilles on doors and windows. Cash, passports and electrical goods are the main targets. The theft of motor scooters is so high that insurance companies do not accept this risk. The police seem unable to reduce these incidents, so homeowners need to ensure protection of their property.
Pickpockets, operating in gangs, are active at all open-air markets, indoor markets and within some supermarkets, particularly when thronged with people during the busy summer season.
It is wrong to point the finger at any nationality, social or occupational group. While murder, bank robbery and crimes of passion are reported in the popular press these are a rarity. As long as sensible precautions are taken the streets of Spain are safe for both adults and children.
Unfortunately Spain is a nation of bureaucrats. Red tape stifles simple daily transactions and frustrates all nationalities including Spaniards themselves. While it is not necessary to obtain permission to wallpaper a room, Spanish officialdom can be all pervasive. When something has to be done, approved or achieved it usually follows a standard pattern – fill in a form and get it approved. It all takes time.
First, there is a queue for the application form. Then a queue to hand it in, only to find the application is not valid unless accompanied by two other documents which can only be obtained from other departments in different parts of town. Once obtained, queue again only to discover that the application will not take effect until stamped by the head of department and they have gone home for the day.
The whole process is made more difficult by the opening hours of the little grilles behind which Spanish bureaucrats confront their public. Not only can the opening hours vary from department to department, but they are always as short as possible. Then there are fiestas, local and national holidays and...!
Festivals, cultural events and sports events crowd the Spanish calendar. Even small villages have at least one traditional fiesta, lasting a week or more, when parades, bull running and fireworks replace work. Rural and coastal towns celebrate their harvest or fishing catch with a gastronomic feast where local produce can be sampled with liberal quantities of wine. Music, dance and drama festivals are held in the major cities throughout the year. It is called Spanish culture. If however fireworks go off at midnight, a band is playing at four o’clock in the morning and all shops are unexpectedly closed due to a local holiday then patience, among other things, is required.
The last major downside of Spain is a feature called manana – never do something today if it can be put off to tomorrow, or the day after, or perhaps never to be done at all. To live successfully in Spain it is necessary to come to terms with its culture. Coping with manana is a necessary skill that just has to be acquired. It is most prevalent with builders, repairers, mechanics or indeed in any situation requiring a commitment to a time or date. A shrug of the shoulders, an upturned hand, a slight bow of the head, a moment of silence is manana in progress.
It is argued in large cities manana does not exist. They work as hard as their European counterparts. Builders work hard, for long hours with full order books. Supermarkets have extended opening hours. The old Spanish proverb ‘It is good to do nothing and rest afterwards’ (es bueno descansar y no hacer nada despues) is no longer applicable. All this is true, but somewhere, under the surface still lurks manana.