The billionth tourist of 2012 landed in Spain. Why the jobs are just not following

Tourists in Madrid can’t escape the reality of Spain’s shattered economy.
Tourists in Madrid can’t escape the reality of Spain’s shattered economy.
Image: AP Photo / Fernando Llano
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Looking for a way to wipe out your country’s national debt, miraculously generate job growth and cut the cost of laundering those environmentally-unfriendly hotel towels soiled by tourists? The United Nations, in its infinite wisdom, selected St. Lucia’s Day in Madrid to offer the world a billion solutions.

The one billionth tourist of 2012 arrived yesterday in the capital of the Spanish Liquidation. The UN marked the milestone with a press release and a plea:

“Experience a new culture, meet new people, support the local economy and help sustain the jobs of waiters, tour guides and many more working in tourism,” UN World Tourism Organization General Secretary Taleb Rifai said. “If we multiply this impact by one billion, we begin to understand the enormous significance…”

It’s perhaps no coincidence that St. Lucia is the patron saint of the blind and Rifai, former chief executive officer of the Jordan Cement Company in Amman, envisions the $1.2 trillion global tourism industry as the foundation for economic resurrection. St. Lucia is venerated for giving money to the poor. The UN’s tourism agency estimates the industry accounts for 8% of total exports from the least developed countries and trumpets the need to convince more people to spend their money on travel.

Attracting tourists for profit, particularly infirmed American vacationers and hemp holidaymakers, is a commerce as old as Ancient Rome. The Spanish government, for instance, estimates some 58 million travelers will visit the country by the end of this year, contributing 11% to its contracting GDP.

Yet the rules of political correctness and the backlash of listing debt-plagued Spain or any of her stumbling sister European Union nations in the UN travel brochure of least developed countries is too horrific to contemplate. Unless, that is, you’re a statistic in the upwardly mobile Spanish unemployment rate.

“Spain is no longer a developed country,” says Carlos Alonzo, a jobless 25-year-old Madrid lab technician, part of the 52% of those the government quantifies as unemployed youth and whose disaffected voices can be heard on the communal radio station AgoraSolRadio.

“I can’t even find a job waiting tables,” Alonzo says.

Sound like a great place to visit?

“I understand this perception perfectly,” says Jordi Albrecht, director of the Spanish think tank Circulo de Economia in Barcelona. “If Europe doesn’t change its economic policies this perception will continue to grow.”

The UN celebrated the billion-tourist mark because 2011 saw just 982 million visitors globally. Yet Europe’s tourism growth is static, according to Eurostat. On Spain’s usually flush Balearic Islands, travel publishing industry executive J. Lanning Aldrich says his once-moneyed village of Deia in the trendy and expensive Serra de Tramuntana is an economic ghost town.

“Over the course of the last three months in Mallorca, it’s quite evident that a majority of tourism-dependent businesses have closed for the Christmas winter season,” says Aldrich, former chief consultant to Time Out Travel Guides in London. “That says something because they all in the past would have remained opened through the new year. There’s no money.”