Tourist Gibraltar: works in progress

Sponsored post: “A shipful of visitors can mean a 10 per cent boost to the population” - Neil Costa MP

New Statesman

Neil Costa is a man with things on his mind. He is the minister for tourism and public transport in Gibraltar – to give him his full title he is Hon Neil Costa, MP (one of his predecessors was named Holliday, and yes, of course they’ve heard all the gags). Costa isyouthfuland energetic and liaisesclosely with the jurisdiction’s Tourist Board. The board’s chief executive, Nicky Guerrero, is equally occupied.

It’s a tiny peninsula so nobody works terribly far from anybody else, but along with several other officials, the ministerworks from Europort, the large concrete and arguably faceless building towards the south of the Rock. It is of course the job of the minister and his CEOto persuade incoming tourists that the territory itself is anything but faceless. In fact, Costa has a particular subset of this aim in mind; he wants to encourage guests from staying just one night (if that; the Rock is well known for attracting day trippers) and encourage them to stay longer. He is also determined to attract visitors from territories thathaven’t previously been in the habit of sending many tourists over. The opportunity for the right entrepreneurs is clear – if he succeeds, there will be many pickings for people with the right business ideas.

“We have to develop our visitor profile,” confirms the Gibraltar Tourist Board’s Guerrero. “The majority of our visitors come for the day across the border. A lot of them will be people who are already holidaying in the areas around Gib, and we also have people from ships. There are 180 visits scheduled to Gibraltar from cruise ships, and the ships are getting bigger,” he says. “Some ships will have up to 3,000 passengers on board. That’s effectively a 10per centboost to the population, in a single day – except one day this year wehad four ships in one day.”

As well as people visiting Gib as a destination in its own right, a large number use it as a transit point, says Guerrero. “They come to us and use our airport because they prefer it to the ones in the surrounding areas,” he says. “So we have quite a mixed profile of visitor, and they each require a different strategy and different marketing.”

So if there are that many visitors on a rock of six square miles, why does the profile need building? “We are trying to attract more people to stay overnight,” Guerrero says,“from the UK and other markets in Europe. The UK remains a core market and will do so for the foreseeable future. This isn’t just because of the obvious connection of Gib being British by history, but air connections are well established. Brits can be here in two or three hours, which adds to the ‘day trip’ nature of the destination.” This is something the board finds frustrating, as does the Chief Minister, Fabian Picardo.

Yet thatdoesn’t mean Gibraltar wants to discourage day trippers from visiting, stresses Costa. “Day trippers are very welcome indeed to our shores and they do provide very important economic activity. But what we’d prefer for Gibraltar in addition are weekenders’ breaks.” Not that these aren’t happening already, but the inhabitants would clearly like to see more. Guerrero concedes that the typical image of a visit to the Rock is of a trip that lasts a couple of hours – a bit of shopping, see the apes, and out. “Whereas in the past people might have come for a day to shop, what we’re aiming to do, once they’re here,is to entice themto stay longer and to visit again,” Costa explains. “We’re continuing to promote Gibraltar internationally, through trade fairs or meetings one to one with cruise-line executives, airline executives, tour operators in the UK and so on, but there has been less work in the past on converting the day tripper into a tourist.”

Naturally they’re biased, but the minister and the chief executive believe there is much more to see than many people realise when they visit, if only they stay. The heritage and the culture are notable, and a lot has been achieved to promote them. The current government campaigned hard on event-led tourism as a way of encouraging visits to the Rock. In office, the government has already rolled out an impressive array of attractive events, such asthe Rock’s very first international literary festival. The idea is to get people visiting and staying when there is no sun – bad weather is not as frequent in Gibraltar as it is in the UK, but there are colder months. There is also a difficulty in selling the Rock as a sun destination; the weather is fine but the beaches are small and, reasonably enough, the localsdescend on them and fill them up when they get the chance. “Of course there’s space for tourists, but if 3,000 of them descended on our beaches one day it would be quite the task to accommodate all of them,” Costa says.

The current administration has continued its predecessor’s work in developing infrastructure for overnighters. A leisure development called Ocean Village is now up and running. This includes bars, restaurants and nightclubs, as does the nearby Casemates, a square at the end of the main street. “There’s a lively nightlife to complement the heritage and the history, so we’re actively promoting Gibraltar also asa modern, vibrant city,” says Costa.

Another area in which the jurisdiction is developing is extension of the classic tour. There are more of them but more importantly they have different themes. “There’s your standard Rock tour,” says Guerrero, “but there are other sights. There’s very beautiful architecture; you’re tempted to look at eye level and see the shops when you walk down the main street but you miss a lot if you don’t look up.”

Ironically for a place that has been under UK jurisdiction for 300 years, the tourism people are now starting to market the territory as “undiscovered”. Guerrero says that when the government hosts someone, ifthey spend the night, they end up enjoying it more than they had expected and agreeing it’s a great destination.

“You mustn’t ignore our unique geographical location,” he adds. “There aren't many places where you can stand on a 1,396ft peak and look out at three countries spanning two continents.” You can of course see Spain, but on a clear day you can make out the coast of Africa as well. People wanting to explore the African continentfurther will find it’s a ferry ride away.

If it all sounds a little too convenient to be true, this could be right,for the moment. Costa concedes that, as well as marketing the Rock, which has many benefits, there is a need to improve connectivity, infrastructure and links with other territories. “We are working daily on sustainable connectivity to Spain,” he says. “Unfortunately the two airlines, Iberia and British Airways, had aircraft that were just too big, so they were only ever half full. Had they had smaller aircraft they would have been full, but because they used the Airbus A320 and A319 and there were two operators it just wasn’t sustainable.” The timing of flights wasn’t right either, he suggests: “It should have been a huge success story for Gibraltar but it wasn’t properly analysed.”

The government now believes it has worked out the right formula for aircraft size and times of day for travel, but as the earlier experiment failed it has been difficult to persuade a new operator to come in. Sustainable connectivity to Spain remains a goal even as conflict on the border flares up every few years, as does the connection to Morocco. “If people can fly from Madrid or Morocco to Gibraltar, they will come either as tourists or as business travellers. There was an occasion recently when I flew from London to Gibraltar and the front of the bus, the business class seats, were up to row 12.” Replicating this connectivity to Madrid would link another major hub to Gib, Costa believes. “Any properly sized aircraft at the right time would be full.” Conversations with operators in Spain and Morocco are ongoing.

There has been legislative change under the current administration that willhelp. Around Easter this year Moroccans, Russians, Chinese and Mongolians were allowed to apply for tourist visas to allow them to visit Gibraltar for up to 21 days. A thousand two hundredhad visited by September. These were Costa’s idea of touristsin the usualsense:people who come to stay overnightrather than just have a snapshot taken with a Barbary ape (not that he wants people to miss this experience, either). There are affluent people in Morocco who want to spend money on luxury European goods, he observes, and Gibraltar wants to welcome them. There is another advantage to marketing to the Moroccans, of course: Gibraltar doesn’t get involved in territorial disputes with Morocco, whereas relations with Spain tell a different story.

The willingness of the effort to get people into the country is beyond doubt; if they all turn up, though, the facilities for them (Ocean City and Casemates notwithstanding) will need reconsidering. There are enough hotels for the moment, Costa says. “The statistics can give a very misleading impression. I go to one hotel terrace every weekend,a sort of second officefor work, away from emails and correspondence, and it’s always full. When you look at the statistics, though, it doesn’t seem to be doing as well.” This is because the stats compiled offer an average figure foroccupancyacrossthe entire hotel sector,thoughindividual establishments can do spectacularly well.

There will be a need for increased capacity and it ison the way. A new luxury floating hotel, the Sunborn, is opening early next year at Ocean Village with 189 rooms; these are VVIP class, five-star-plus luxury, aiming at a particularly affluent market. The Tourist Board is also in discussion with an operator to buildadditional premises; it can’t name the operator at the moment but you get the feeling there’s another hotel in the offing. “We are working to have another four-star business hotel,” Costa confirms.

It is clear that the Rock will needmore beds if the push for more overnight tourists is to be a success. It will also need to give some thought to the environment – 3,000 people traipsing overthe Rock from a ship is one thing; amplify that whenthey start to stay overnight, overlap with each other and get augmented by Moroccans, Russians and others, and you could have a serious problem. Costa has been working with Dr John Cortes, the minister for the environment, on a sustainable transport plan for the Upper Rock. “Right now taxis and tour operators take tourists whoarrive by sea, air or land to the Upper Rock and at times there is congestion,” Costasays. “We’re looking at how we can decongest the area, first for reasons that are environmental, but also because we want tourists who go there always to have a great time.”

Add the possible queue to get in at the border, depending on relations with Spain at the time, and the disincentives to return could be substantial. Governmentministers are working with the various interest groups in the territory to arrive at a mutually acceptable solution.

None of this should be taken to mean that day trippers will be neglected. Costa, Guerrero and their team want to expand, not replace, the existing tourist industry. If they succeed,there is a good chance that the presentunderpinnings will become unsustainable quite quickly. Clearly the administration hopes to address infrastructure before it becomes an obstacle. There are many balls in the air at the moment; if they all come down in the right order, and soon, the results should be very positive.

This is a corrected version published on 9th December 2013. It originally appeared in the New Statesman magazine within a 16 page special report ‘Rock Solid Investment. Gibraltar: Tourism, Property, Travel’ on the 21st November 2013.