Viva España

Attracting Middle East tourists to Spain has proven a challenge with only one direct flight operating from the Gulf to the country’s capital Madrid. But can the lure of bustling Barcelona win over the tricky market?

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By  Gemma Hornett Published  September 5, 2006

|~|Hotel-Arts-large.gif|~|With the Arab market in mind, the Hotel Arts Barcelona features 27 exclusive duplex apartments, situated across its top 10 floors.|~|Barcelona, the capital of Catalonia, one of the 17 autonomous communities in Spain, has long attracted tourists from Spain and Europe in search of summer holidays or city breaks year-round. This has been driven by the rise of low-cost airlines such as the UK’s easyJet offering cheap tickets to the vibrant city, which is just a two-and-a-half hour flight from London and Amsterdam, and less from Frankfurt, Paris or Rome. But until recently, Spain, let alone Barcelona, has been an offline destination for the Middle East market because no Gulf carrier has served the destination with a direct flight. As a result, very few agents or operators are knowledgeable about Barcelona’s attributes and the only residents from this region who have visited the city have been Western ex-pats who have combined a summer trip home with a short break in Spain. According to Bela Shah, a senior travel consultant at Dubai-based Sharaftravel, although European destinations have been popular with holidaymakers, Spain has been off the radar due to accessibility issues. “[But] Barcelona has both ancient heritage as well as modern city sophistication. So the passengers can enjoy visits to artistic cathedrals and other masterpieces as well as enjoy the city night life, shopping and numerous pubs/hangouts,” she says, adding that Arab travellers who do visit Barcelona, usually combine the trip with visits to other Spanish destinations such as Granada and Seville. “I think more awareness must be created for Spain in general as it’s a beautiful destination that could become as popular as other European countries that are visited more often,” she adds. Fortunately, Qatar Airways made its long-awaited maiden trip to the Spanish capital Madrid on December 2, 2005. The carrier operates a three times weekly service from Doha, adding yet another key global capital to its burgeoning network and opening up Spain to a market that may otherwise overlook the country in favour of better-known European destinations. The knock-on affects of Qatar Airways’ new service to Madrid are already being felt by some of Barcelona’s leading hotels. “We have seen a big influx from the Middle East. Close to 5% of our clients are now coming from the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Qatar,” explains Lourdes Guade, director of sales and marketing at Hotel Arts Barcelona, a Ritz-Carlton Hotel Company L.L.C property. Other contributing factors to increasing Middle East interest include word-of-mouth, particularly since HRH Prince Waleed Bin Talal, a member of the Saudi royal family, stayed at the hotel, she adds. One of the city’s most exclusive venues, which looks out over the Mediterranean Sea, the towering 482-room Hotel Arts Barcelona works hard to excel at catering to Arab guests. “We always try to accommodate every request from the client and offer them a yes answer. We offer private limousine transportation with Arabic-speaking drivers, Arabic TV channels, staff that are fluent in the language, large family rooms and private dining rooms,” says Guade. The hotel, which is 20 minutes from Barcelona Airport and a short walk from the city’s old quarter, comprises 365 deluxe guestrooms and 44 executive suites, as well as The Club on floors 30 to 33, which features 32 deluxe guestrooms, 12 executive suites, one presidential suite and one Japanese suite. With the Arab market in mind, there are also 27 exclusive duplex apartments, located on the hotel’s top 10 floors, each of which includes a spacious living room, dining room, kitchen and a round-the-clock-butler service. There are 10 one-bedroom apartments from 190m², 11 two-bedroom apartments from 250m², five three-bedroom apartments from 350m² and one 400m² Royal Suite with two bedrooms, one service bedroom and a terrace. Other hotel features include 14 function rooms, a business centre, seven F&B outlets, an outdoor Jacuzzi, fitness centre, shops, and a Spa by Six Senses. The latter has eight treatment suites with chromotherapy, hydrotherapy pools, saunas and steam baths.Guests are also privy to a collection of Spanish art, including 1000 paintings and sculptures. Excursions, organised by the concierge, are offered to the nearby seaside town of Sitges, as well as south to Costa Brava where pebbled beaches, crystalline waters, as well as small villages such as Cadaqués beckon.||**||Passing through|~||~||~|Although most Middle East travellers have yet to discover Spanish cities, they have long frequented beach resorts on the Costa del Sol on the southern coast, where many keep luxury yachts moored in Marbella or Malaga. The Hotel Arts, located next to one of Barcelona’s two main marinas, has noticed that increasingly, Arab nationals are sailing up the coast and stopping in for a few days. Most make last-minute bookings and some combine their stay with visits to London and Paris. To cater to this market, which notoriously travels in large groups, the hotel runs family offers. This summer, for example, booking one deluxe room entitled guests to a 50% discount on a second room.||**||MICE at Le Meridien|~|Gaudi-museum.gif|~|Barcelona is famous for its stunning Gaudi architecture, which is a key draw card for visiting culture vultures.|~|Another popular top-end hotel is Le Meridien Barcelona, which is situated on Barcelona’s main drag known as Las Ramblas, near the Gothic quarter and where, like New York, the city never sleeps. The hotel comprises 233 rooms and suites, a fitness centre, a restaurant, bar and a business centre and offers WiFi in public areas and meeting rooms, a babysitting service and 24-hour room service. With the MICE market in mind, the 238m² Espai Barcelona conference centre, which is divisible into five seperate conference rooms, can cater to from 16 to 260 people. There is also the luxurious Fortuny boardroom, 10 business rooms that can be transformed into bedrooms for extra capacity, and the Liceu function room, which can cater to up to 230 people. However, the hotel is keen to grab a larger slice of the inbound MICE market, as last year, Barcelona witnessed a 26% increase in conference activity. Le Meridien Barcelona is therefore carrying out a 25 million (US $32.1 million) refurbishment to include a business and conference centre with a 3420m² amphitheatre, according to Ana Miquel, the hotel’s PR manager.||**||Keeping amused|~||~||~|The popularity of Barcelona as a short-break destination is unsurprising. It is a city where you can pop to the beach, escape to the scenic mountain-framed countryside or simply sample the teeming street life. Regarded as cosmopolitan and tolerant, Barcelona owes much of its character to its long history. The city dates back around 4000 years; it was a Roman colony and has a history of Muslim control. It is therefore a diverse, multi-faceted city where the meticulously preserved Gothic centre sits comfortably next to the stark contrast of the grid-like layout of the Eixample, the modernist residential and commercial area that was built in the 1860s to accommodate the old city’s swelling population. Keeping busy is not a worry in Barcelona. There are 53 museums and galleries, 41 theatres, more than 150 cinemas, six beaches and 62 parks. The city’s tourist board, Barcelona Turisme, is continually working hard to appeal to all tastes, including the Middle East market. There is certainly no shortage of cultural tourism for visitors to make the most of, with the jewel in the Catalonian city’s crown undoubtedly the creations of revered Spanish architect, Antonio Gaudi, the greatest of which is arguably the Sagrada Familia. Attracting more than 2 million visitors each year, the giant gothic temple has been under construction since 1882, and is still going strong. Fans of Picasso should make their way to the Museu Picasso, which is home to the majority of his work, from his early years until his death. The much advertised Summer Festival, which started in 1976, now takes place annually, from June to August, and prides itself on being the most cultural event on the calendar; injecting theatre, dance and music into the city. So-called “cultural tourism” is an initiative attempting to attract a new breed of visitors that will enhance Barcelona’s image internationally and appeal to young ex-pat tourists in particular. The Middle East market’s fascination with shopping is no secret and Barcelona caters well to this appetite for spending money, boasting around 35,000 retail outlets. It is also home to the famous five-kilometre shopping parade that stretches from the top of Las Ramblas, through Place de Catalunya along Passeig de Gracia and up Avenue Diagonal. Much of the stretch is pedestrianised, making it a pleasant shopping experience and welcome change from mall the culture that is prevalent in the Middle East. With a dizzying choice, tourists will find a mixture of independent boutiques, high street brands and designer labels, and Middle Eastern visitors can claim back tax on all purchases when departing the country.||**||THE SALES PITCH|~||~||~|Getting there: Air France: (via CDG) from Abu Dhabi, three weekly; from Amman, daily; from Bahrain, three weekly; from Beirut, 14 weekly (suspended); from Cairo, 10 weekly; from Damascus, five weekly; from Dubai, 13 weekly; from Jeddah, three weekly; from Kuwait, five weekly; from Riyadh, daily; from Tehran, daily. KLM: (via Amsterdam) from Abu Dhabi, four weekly; from Amman, five weekly; from Bahrain; three weekly; from Beirut, four weekly (suspended); from Cairo, daily; from Damascus, three weekly; from Dammam, four weekly; from Doha, four weekly; from Dubai, 12 weekly; from Kuwait, five weekly; from Muscat, one weekly; from Tehran, five weekly. Lufthansa: (via Zurich or Frankfurt) from Amman, daily; from Cairo, 14 weekly; from Dammam, three weekly; from Doha, 17 weekly; from Dubai, 14 weekly. Qatar Airways: three weekly flights to Madrid. Connections to Barcelona available. Royal Jordanian: twice weekly. Sample packages: Hotel Arts Barcelona: standard rooms from 370 ($475), suites from 485 ($623), club rooms from 560 ($720) and the Presidential and Japanese Suites from 1800 ($2313). Kanoo Travel: a three night package including three-star accommodation and return economy flights with Swiss Air (via Zurich) is priced AED 3580 (US $975) per person. Le Meridien Barcelona: deluxe rooms from 390 ($500), suite prices range from 500 ($642) for a junior, to 2000 ($2569) for the Presidential Suite. Qatar Airways Holidays: a seven-night package in the four-star Gran Hotel Catalonia, including return economy airfares, breakfast, one-week’s free travel insurance and one-way transfer to Doha International Airport costs QAR 6505 ($1787)per person. SharafTravel: a seven-night package, including return economy airfares on Air France, accommodation in the three-star Hotel Ramblas, and airport transfers is priced AED 10,100 ($2750), including all taxes. Selling tips: Barcelona boasts 35,000 retail outlets and a five-kilometre shopping parade. Middle East visitors can claim back tax on all purchases on departure. Antonio Gaudi and his world famous architecture is arguably Barcelona’s most famous export; the Sagrada Familia and his other architectural wonders are a must-see. Barcelona is easily accessible from all of Europe’s major cities and can easily be incorporated into a European summer family vacation.||**||

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