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Skiers head to Spain

Once recognised only as a summertime destination, Spain is now unexpectedly making a name for itself as a hub for winter tourism, thanks to a relatively unknown ski resort in the Pyrenees


When thinking about the Spanish tourism industry, it is usually sun-soaked Mediterranean beaches and dazzling architecture that spring to mind. It is not, perhaps, strings of button lifts trailing down snow-capped mountains. However, on the Spanish side of the Pyrenees, a burgeoning ski resort – one that rivals the overpopulated locations found just over the French border – is challenging such preconceptions.

The many beach resorts and holiday homes that litter Spain’s coasts have so far dominated international opinion of its tourism credentials. Such is the attractiveness of the country to visitors that the World Economic Forum (WEF) placed Spain at the top of its Travel and Tourism Competitiveness Index 2015, ahead of neighbouring France, as well as Germany, the US and the UK. It is the first time that the country has topped the index, and represents a resurgence for Spain as a destination for global travellers.

Spanish tourism authorities had concerns that falling visitor numbers during the summer would exacerbate the country’s already struggling economy

More than a beach break
According to WEF’s report, Spain is the third most visited country in the world, welcoming around 60.6 million people each year. This figure is being fuelled by an increase in visitors from newly affluent economies, such as Brazil, China and Mexico. The report added, “With beautiful heritage sites throughout the country, it boasts top marks for its cultural resources, and also scores highly for business travellers with a significant number of international conferences. It has a high ranking (fourth) on online searches for entertainment – restaurants, nightlife and attractions – as well as prioritisation of the travel and tourism industry (sixth) and tourism service infrastructure (fourth)”.

However, while the country is obviously a highly desirable location for tourists, it still requires work in attracting business travellers, according to WEF. The report noted that “there is room for improvement”, adding that “the low rank for business environment (100th) reflects red tape related to construction permits and an inefficient legal framework, while the labour market is still assessed as somewhat rigid (113th) and sees a mismatch between workers’ rewards and productivity (125th)”.

The news of Spain topping the index comes after a sluggish few years: just a few years ago, there was concern among Spanish tourism authorities that falling visitor numbers during the summer would exacerbate the country’s already struggling economy. As a result, in recent years there has been a concerted effort to develop Spain’s tourism infrastructure and expand it so that it may entice travellers to visit year-round, rather than just in the summer months.

The importance of tourism to Spain’s economy was highlighted recently in a report by Euromonitor International, which suggested that last year had been a slow year for travel in the country: “After a complicated time for the Spanish economy and the travel market over the review period, 2014 was a better year and a slow pace of recovery was witnessed in many categories. Inbound arrivals in particular posted positive results in 2014, enabling the travel market to regain strength. However, the average expenditure per visitor did not increase at the same level, reflecting a new trend in which travellers have begun to take trips again, albeit with a more limited budget.”

This price-conscious attitude among travellers is leading to many traditionally high-end destinations beginning to suffer, as travellers are instead seeking out new and undiscovered – and so usually cheaper – destinations for their holidays.

France meets Spain
Not widely thought of as a destination for skiing, Spain is in fact the second most mountainous country in Europe, and within its Pyrenees Mountains sit some of the country’s most popular skiing destinations. While these resorts have been popular with Spaniards for decades, the Val d’Aran (Aran Valley) is still relatively unknown to those outside of the country’s borders.

Keith Kirwen from the Pyrenees Mountain Experience – a company that arranges tours of the Baqueria Beret Ski Resort in Val d’Aran – spoke to Business Destinations about how this part of Spain has grown to be one of Europe’s most treasured, yet still largely undiscovered, destinations. With regular visitors including the former King of Spain, Juan Carlos I, who has a magnificent holiday home in the region, Val d’Aran has established itself as the country’s premier winter tourism destination.

Having recently celebrated its 50th anniversary, Val d’Aran has served winter sports enthusiasts in northern Spain ever since it opened in 1964. However, before the resort opened, this part of Spain was a relatively modest and remote community, according to Kirwen: “Prior to the opening of the Baqueira Beret resort, the Val d’Aran was a remote mountain community based on agriculture and farming. There was also a decent amount of contraband activity, given that the valley is on the French border. Many people back then had to go to France to find work.”

Indeed, the valley has only really opened up to winter visitors because of its unique geography. Kirwen said, “The Val d’Aran is a unique mountain valley in the Pyrenees for many reasons. One principal reason is that it faces north: this means that during the winter months, the valley was closed off to Spain for centuries due to the snow. It has a significant, historical French influence as a result of this.”

All four seasons
As a result of the French impact on the valley, Val d’Aran is a melting pot of cultures, with Spanish, French and traditional local Aranese influences. The cuisine, language and Romanesque architecture give the place a truly distinct look and feel – indeed, according to Kirwen, during the 19th century the French began to refer to the valley as ‘the Switzerland of Spain’.

The Val d’Aran has now become one of Spain’s most profitable tourist regions, and one not just limited to winter tourism. Kirwen noted, “Now, 50 years later, the Val d’Aran is one of the regions in Spain with the highest income per capita. Baqueira Beret is the principal economic motor of the valley, no doubt. Over the years, the majority of tourists came in the winter, but now there is strong year-round tourism activity.”

The rise in interest in the area has also led to economic benefits for the local community, with around 80 percent of the local population now working directly or indirectly in the tourism sector. “The locals have been able to make good lives converting their homes and businesses into tourist-related enterprises, such as shops and restaurants, and many have also done well selling their property for building”, Kirwen added.

The reasons for the increase in interest in the region are the level of snowfall during the winter; the relative quality difference when compared to other similar locations; and its commitment to maintaining that same quality throughout the season. Kirwen explained: “What makes Baqueira stand out is the quality and quantity of snowfall and the massive grooming programme put into place every night: Baqueira is the resort [in] Europe that grooms more kilometres per night than the rest.”

The region’s best
Val d’Aran has continued to expand in recent years by opening yet more slopes to skiers, with an additional 21 due to open this year. This means that the resort now has a collection of downhill slopes stretching 146km in total, while there are also plenty of cross-country skiing routes on offer.

The skiing at Val d’Aran has been heralded as some of the finest in Europe, with a number of runs, including Mirador, Blanhibla, and Dossau, proving to be particularly popular. Another unique activity that is drawing guests to Val d’Aran is heli-skiing, which is popular for both its guaranteed excitement and its relative cheapness – the thrill of going up in a helicopter to locate the perfect slope, and then jumping out onto the mountain itself is something that is not available to many skiers, but in Val d’Aran it is both affordable and easy to arrange.

The valley is also well known for the annual Marxa Beret cross-country skiing event, which will be celebrating its 37th edition in 2016. It acts as Spain’s principal cross-country ski competition, and last year saw 1,300 competitors from countries all over Europe, including Finland, Norway, Estonia, Russia, Germany, Italy and France. And, while the winter months are certainly the most popular for welcoming tourists into the valley, during the summer there is also plenty to do: camping trips are popular, particularly those in the untouched and peaceful forest within the Valley of Toran.

Welcoming business
Skiing has become not only the pastime of winter sport enthusiasts and holidaymakers alike, but it is also a useful activity for those looking to arrange unique work retreats. For many businesses, short corporate excursions provide the perfect opportunity for teambuilding and networking, as well as for providing a unique place in which to develop new ideas. According to Kirwen, Pyrenees Mountain Experience recognises the ability of such an environment to have a positive impact on overly stressed workers. “We know the soothing and rejuvenating power of these mountains, and work closely with companies to build a holiday business development programme any time of the year”, he said.

As a result, the organisation has now developed an array of programmes for business visitors. “What is great about the Val d’Aran in this regard is the amazing landscape and fresh mountain air, as well as the countless types of programmes we can build,” Kirwen explained. “We can do five-star spa, caviar and champagne events, or rugged teambuilding, mountain-climbing types.”

The resort is also ideally located for business people looking to get away from their hectic work lives in major European cities. With Toulouse Airport only an hour and a half away, the valley has easy access to frequent flights to and from major hubs across the continent, while other parts of Spain are also relatively close by, including Bilbao to the resort’s west and Barcelona to its southeast.

Near and far
During the winter, the vast majority of visitors to the region come from Spain, with around 34 percent coming from Madrid and 24 percent from the Basque and Catalan regions. A further 15 percent also arrive from across the border in France. Visitors from much further afield currently don’t account for a significant proportion of Val d’Aran’s tourism, however. For the rest of the year, arrivals come mostly from the Catalan region, although visitors from further afield – notably France – are increasing each year. Kirwen added, “Every year there are more. The majority come for the Midi Pyrenees region or the southwest of France.” Indeed, the increased interest from the French has led to Baqueira opening up offices in both Bordeaux and Toulouse.

For the many Europeans that ski, the most popular locations tend to be in the Alps mountain range, such as Val d’Isère, Chamonix and Meribel on the French side, or Verbier and St Moritz on the Swiss side. However, skiing has been popular throughout the Pyrenees for many years now, partly because of the smaller crowds and lower prices.

Despite it not having the high-profile reputation of its Alpine rivals, the resort of Val d’Aran is at an advantage because it is relatively undiscovered. As a result, prices are comparatively low, and the most popular slopes are by far less congested. “The price/quality ratio and size of the resort, along with the fact that there are rarely any lines to wait in, make the resort a remarkable place to ski”, Kirwen explained. He added that during weekdays in the off season, the slopes are practically deserted, guaranteeing some unique skiing opportunities.

Going the extra mile
In order to encourage tourists from further afield to come to Val d’Aran, the local tourism board is playing a key role in promoting the region, according to Kirwen. However, the resort still remains mostly unknown to the majority of European skiers, and it is only recently that there has been an active strategy to promote the resort beyond the traditional
Spanish market.

Kirwen said, “People from all over Europe who have come here on holiday, and with whom I have had the opportunity to work, always seem shocked that no one knows about this place. They ask why more isn’t done to get the word out. I always respond that, up until very recently, there was no need to do any marketing because the people of Aran have been so busy building, creating and catering to its Spanish and French tourists that it was never needed. Now, however, we have this huge infrastructure, and we know that the future is north of the Pyrenees.”

It not just the skiing that is attracting visitors, but also the entertainment afterwards: “The après ski and everything the Val d’Aran has to offer makes it very different to many other European resorts”, according to Kirwen. “The last few years we have seen a significant increase in live music, and this is getting better and better. Where the Val d’Aran really shines with the après ski is the food and drink: tapas, pinchos and rioja (at great prices) are what really make the place amazing. In Baqueria, there has also been a steady increase in the number of high-end restaurants and bars, including the recently opened Moët & Chandon Lounge.”

Val d’Aran has in recent years vastly expanded its infrastructure in order to cater for more visitors, and now has more than 12,000 beds across the valley, plus around 200 restaurants. Accommodation ranges from basic bungalows, hostels and hotels to high-end, five-star resorts and apartments. Among those at the top end of the scale is the Val de Neu in Baqueira, which was recently hailed as Europe’s first five-star grand luxury mountain resort. It includes 120 indulgent rooms, a spa and a wide range of dining options.

The region as a whole has been praised in a number of different areas, including for its environmental sustainability strategy, with National Geographic naming it as a finalist in its World Legacy Awards. And, as more skiers begin to realise that they don’t need to spend small fortunes and do battle with the crowds at more high-profile resorts in order to experience a unique skiing holiday, the region’s popularity – and, with it, Spain’s reputation as a winter holiday destination– is only set to rise further.

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