With 1.3 million Irish visitors to Spain in 2014, it seems that the Irish love affair with the country remains as strong as ever. So I welcomed the opportunity to talk with the man responsible for promoting Spain in Ireland, Gonzalo Ceballos, Director of the Spanish Tourism Office in Dublin.
Definitely a statistics man, Gonzalo knows exact visitor numbers not only for last year (1,294,070 to be precise!) but also for previous years, and could easily break it down by regions, and even seasons! When you think that Spain has more Irish visitors than Italy, Portugal, Turkey, Croatia, Tunisia, Malta, Greece, Morocco, Egypt and Cyprus combined, or to put it simply – almost a third of our population – the magnitude of these figures really hits home.
So what is it about Spain that attracts so many Irish people?
One might say it is the 44 UNESCO World Heritage Sites, the numerous National Parks, or even the fact that it has some of the world’s best restaurants. However, this is not the case. It is mainly because there are numerous daily direct flights, it is extremely safe with one of the lowest crime rates in the EU, there are over 3,000 beautiful sandy beaches, and, of course, Spain has sunshine!
Although Gonzalo enjoys diplomatic status and has the letters CD on his number plate, he was quick to assure me that he was really “only a civil servant”! The Spanish Tourist Board is an administrative body and by definition there is a lot of paperwork. Gonzalo monitors daily events in Ireland to see if there will be implications for travellers to Spain, even factoring in such things as our water charges. Will this mean Irish people will have less disposable income for holidays in the future?
He checks visitor numbers and their spend and has to account for various budgets within the organisation. In the absence of a large advertising budget, Gonzalo, Kathryn MacDonnell and his team have to market to the public and the media, assess new routes and monitor competitor activity. They organise many media and trade trips to showcase particular regions and support tour operators and travel agents with advice and various trade events.
Gonzalo feels the reason that the Spanish Tourism Office is so successful and constantly winning awards from the Irish travel trade is simply because “we are here”. Unlike many other tourist boards, they are based in Ireland with five staff, all “sensing, smelling and touching the market” and not monitoring visitors from aboard with a PC. He enjoys his role here and “feels comfortable, included and even feels Irish” now!
With over 90% of Irish tourists visiting Spanish beaches and holiday resorts, is Gonzalo keen to promote some of the other, less developed parts of Spain?
Although there are many areas that he would like to promote, he says he has to remain impartial. He needs to dedicate his time and resources evenly and to the areas that the Irish people are most likely to visit. The Camino de Santiago pilgrimage tours are a great example of a niche product that has grown extensively over the past few years with over five thousand Irish people walking along the route last year. You may find it hard to believe but the Canary Islands are the best places in Europe to go stargazing! They have Europe’s largest telescopes and are an astronomer’s paradise. The town of San Sebastian has the highest number of Michelin-star restaurants per inhabitant in the world. These are just some of the niche areas that could be developed – and there are many more.
So what is next for Gonzalo and his family?
Gonzalo comes from a small village north of Madrid called Sepulveda. He moved to Ireland in September 2011 and likes to consider Dublin his hometown now. He has some great friends and has recently moved his children here too. He complimented them on their fantastic attitude in moving here and firmly believes that a good attitude and being flexible are attributes that are very important in life. (I couldn’t agree more!)
He likes to cook and go fishing (although he doesn’t find much time to do that here) and also loves to read. He did surprise me by telling me he likes to go gliding and beneath it all I think he might be a bit of a thrill seeker – he tells me that he had his gliding licence before he had his driving licence! Gonzalo likes to return to his home town each year and also holidays in the Canary Islands and Andalucia. However he firmly believes that “it is not where you go, it is what you do” that matters.
But just as he seems to be finally settled here, it also seems that he might be on the move again. His contract officially ends in September of this year. He has requested an extension for a further year but we will have to wait and see if this is granted. We hope it will be granted, because one thing is for sure: the love affair that the Irish have with Spain extends to one of its countrymen too.
Gonzalo’s short-haul answers:
Diet or Exercise – Exercise
Beer or Wine – Both, beer for play, wine with dinner.
Dine in or Dine out – Both, dine in with family, dine out with friends.
Jeans or Suit – Suit
Long-haul or Short-haul – Short-haul
Beach or Pool – Pool
Adventure or Relaxation – Adventure
Porsche or Range Rover – Range Rover
Last Self Purchase – A new car, a Toyota Corolla.