Spain's converted castles see brisk business despite downturn
With the rise of cheaper beach destinations, Spain is seeking to highlight its historic past in a distinct shift of its tourism strategy.The tide of tourists may have ebbed at Spain's beaches this year in the economic downturn but business is up at its paradors, state-run luxury hotels at affordable prices set up at converted castles, palaces and monasteries.
Prices at the national network of 93 paradors, set up in the 1920s to help promote Spain's image abroad, offer tourists the chance to spend a holiday steeped in Spanish history at lower prices than those at luxury hotels but with the same level of quality.
All have restaurants offering regional cuisine and provide guests with spacious bedrooms with 21st century comforts.
"We could never afford a hotel of this category in France,” said Adele at the parador located in a former convent in the western town of Plasencia, where she was celebrating her 22nd birthday with her boyfriend Benjamin. “It was like travelling in the past. It's a great atmosphere but not at all obsolete.”
A different type of tourism
The network sold 275,704 room nights during July and August, the peak tourism season in Spain, a 5.9 percent increase over the same time last year.
By comparison, Spanish hotels overall posted a 5.5 percent decline in overnight stays during the month of July, according to the latest official statistics.
"The paradors are profitable despite the economic climate,” said the president of the parador network, Miguel Martinez. “We are a public company that is self-financing and invests its profits in the preservation and restoration of Spanish heritage to offer a different type of tourism."
The 15th century convent of Santo Domingo was in disrepair and was completely empty when it started being renovated in 1998 to become a parador.
Today, soft chairs are located in the cloister to invite travellers to enjoy the serene atmosphere but the former monastic asceticism is gone.
Guests stay in former monastic cells that are equipped with satellite TV, eat local dishes in the refectory where walls are lined with mosaics and sip cocktails in the bodega, which once housed jars of olive oil and wine barrels.
Not all paradors are set up in historical buildings. Some modern paradors have been custom-built, often in spectacular scenery or towns of historic interest.
From heat to history
The paradors are becoming the spearhead of Spain's new tourism model, which had previously relied heavily on sun and sea holiday packages at resorts that dot the country's extensive coastline.
But the number of visitors to Spain's beaches has dropped amid growing competition from cheaper destinations like Turkey or Egypt and a long-term shift away from the sort of sunshine holiday packages that the country pioneered half a century ago.
Spain's tourism authorities have responded by trying to put the country's lesser-known attractions, including its strong homegrown gastronomic traditions, firmly on the tourist map, targeting in particular the upper end of the market.
In July, Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero said the paradors "diversify, enrich and noticeably improve Spain's tourism offer" when he inaugurated a new one at Alcala de Henares, the birthplace near Madrid of Miguel de Cervantes, the country's greatest literary figure.
Their image as an ideal location for a romantic get-away got a boost when Spain's Prince Felipe and Princess Letizia spent part of their honeymoon in 2004 at a parador located at a restored 16th century convent in the central town of Cuenca.
"On weekends, the most luxurious suite at the convent at Plasencia, with its four-poster bed and a Jacuzzi is almost always occupied by young couples," the director of the parador, Felix Lobo, said.
The suite costs 320 euros (470 dollars) per night, double the standard price.
"The Spaniards are very proud of their paradors which are the focus of attraction for some villages that are remote and of little importance," said Angel, a 55-year-old from the northwestern region of Galicia, as he sipped a beer at the parador at Plasencia.
He received a 30 percent discount on the 120-euro nightly rate for a double room at the parador because of his age, a discount policy which is partly behind the increase business at the parador network.