Gibraltar's imports have been arriving by land and sea since the early 19th century (Shutterstock)
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Gibraltar: the history of an import-led marketplace

Gibraltar’s businesses have long thrived on the demand for imported good, first from the British Royal Navy, and today from its bustling mix of 30,000 inhabitants and millions of tourists. Edward Macquisten of the Gibraltar Chamber of Commerce explains how this market has developed.

To keep the 30,000 people who live and work in Gibraltar supplied with everything from fresh meat to toner cartridges is a feat of modern logistics. Virtually everything is imported into Gibraltar.

The only manufacturing of any note is Gibraltar Crystal, which does a roaring trade in selling high quality crystal products to tourists from its premises in Casemates Square. Through the internet, this home-grown business now sells its unique figurines, decanters and glasses to customers all over the world. It encapsulates what is at the very heart of Gibraltar’s business community – trading nous. This is perhaps Gibraltar’s only natural resource; the ability to identify a market need and exploit it vigorously.

Back in the early 19th century, the British garrison in Gibraltar was supplied by merchants from the British motherland, specifically those based around the north western cities of Manchester and Liverpool.  This was fine for higher value or non-perishable items but transport by galleon was hardly fast nor was it always safe from interception from those pesky French and Spanish navies.

Traders from the established Mediterranean ports of Genoa, Valetta and Barcelona soon began calling at Gibraltar to supply goods as well. Over time some of these traders brought their families and they settled in Gibraltar, bringing with them their customs and cultures too. Over time they blended with the British and neighbouring Spanish cultures, and thus we have the modern Gibraltarian.

Importing goods into Gibraltar is a sight to behold. The queues of trucks waiting to enter Gibraltar, especially after a weekend, stretches for nearly a kilometre. For a town not much bigger than East Grinstead, it certainly imports a lot. A study published by the Gibraltar Chamber of Commerce in 2009 found that Gibraltar businesses bought over £174m worth of goods and services from Spain in 2007; everything from sand and cement to shoes and dog food.

However, the UK is still the territory’s primary trading partner. The branch of Morrisons in Gibraltar is a destination store for many locals, and also for the hundreds of thousands of European expats who live on the costas but crave a truly British retail experience. On any given day there are around 18 HGVs travelling from the UK to Gibraltar. Sending goods 1,300 miles from its UK depot to the Gibraltar store takes some doing, but it is evidently worth it for the company.

Some local companies like Saccone & Speed were set up specifically to supply the Royal Navy and the British diplomatic corps. And wherever they became established Saccone & Speed followed:  Malta, Cyprus, Africa and the Far East.  Today, even after 175 years, it is still one of the dominant importers and distributors of wines, spirits, tobacco and food on the Rock.

Locals grumble that prices for many goods are higher in Gibraltar than in Spain or the UK, but these merely reflect the higher costs of doing business in Gibraltar. For example, with space at a premium, warehousing costs are much higher than in Spain. In fact, Gibraltar has a fiercely competitive retail and wholesale market. Product sales reps visit their retail customers every weekday to secure sales, check stocks and also make sure that their competitors are not doing better than them.

That said, the exclusivity which an official importer or distributor used to enjoy has largely disappeared because of parallel trading (goods which are imported and distributed by unofficial agents) and online shopping. Indeed, internet sales into Gibraltar have boomed in the last 10 years. So much so that some of the Rock’s shopkeepers buy their stock from other online retailers and then sell it at a discount to the recommended retail price in their shops.

Currently the internet represents quite a significant threat for a number of the shops on Main Street. However, like Gibraltar Crystal, the instinct of local traders means that they will adapt so that their businesses can thrive. It is simply the Gibraltarian way.

Edward Macquisten is chief executive of the Gibraltar Chamber of Commerce

Photo: Getty
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Looking to the future

In our last regular article on Gibraltar for a while, Gibraltar Chronicle editor Brian Reyes looks to the economic and political outlook for the short and medium term.

At the beginning of March, over 150 members of the local business community gathered in the World Trade Center construction site for a ‘topping out’ ceremony. As the last beam was placed on the structure, guests heard speeches about Gibraltar’s resilient economy, its potential for international growth and the need to offer global businesses the necessary working environment to remain competitive.

The EU referendum and the prospect of a so-called Brexit are dominating the headlines, and much of the coverage is gloomy. But in the background, Gibraltar’s private sector continues to drive projects which, in the long term, will help attract international investors to the Rock.

Earlier that same day, Gibraltar’s Development and Planning Commission heard submissions from well-known British architect Jonathan Manser, who leads the design team behind Eurocity, another major development that has its eye on Gibraltar and a prosperous future.

There are other schemes too, some still on the drawing board, some already under way. The MidTown Development, a mix of offices and top-end flats, is funded by a local consortium on a prime site in the heart of town. On the east of the Rock, the ambitious Bluewater project promises a mix of luxury and affordable homes alongside a marina. There are plans too for a former Ministry of Defence site named after Admiral Rooke, while in the Old Town, developers and individual home owners are breathing life into this run down but charming warren of steep, narrow alleyways.

Elsewhere, work is progressing on key infrastructure that will be essential for Gibraltar’s future, in or out of the EU.

Experts are finalising the environmental impact assessment for a facility that will store liquefied natural gas for Gibraltar’s new power station, already under construction. Work should resume too on the airport tunnel project, vital to freeing up Gibraltar’s clogged roads. A new sewage treatment plant, although still some way off, is also in the pipeline, a critical and long-overdue element of Gibraltar’s infrastructure.

There are new attractions for tourists - the opening of the Upper Rock rope bridge and sky platform is eagerly awaited by locals too - and important developments in culture and education, where the University of Gibraltar is building strong academic links across the community and beyond.

And against the background of uncertainty over the UK’s - and by extension Gibraltar’s - membership of the EU, the Gibraltar Government is leaving nothing to chance. A team of economists is analysing the different possible permutations of membership of the EU, EFTA or the EEA, including the potential effects on the Rock’s export economy of membership of the Common Customs Union. 

Despite the combative nature of Gibraltarian politics, there is unity on this question. Both the Gibraltar Government of Gibraltar and the Opposition agree that the UK and Gibraltar should remain in the EU and that Brexit could undermine the Rock’s economic model, creating uncertainty that Spain will undoubtedly seek to exploit. They add that the UK must factor Gibraltar into any post-Brexit negotiation with the EU.

Gibraltar’s long-term economic future will also be placed under scrutiny locally this year by the 2025 Committee, which brings together the public and private sectors and unions to draw up 10-year strategies for the different sectors of the economy, identifying challenges and opportunities in areas as diverse as e-gaming and shipping. A key element of this will be to find new opportunities for business in emerging markets in Asia, the Americas, the Middle East and Africa.

In parallel, a cross-party select committee of the Gibraltar Parliament will analyse various aspects of the 2006 Constitution ahead of a constitutional conference with the United Kingdom on a date yet to be determined. Along with the UK’s referendum on EU membership, the constitutional review will dominate much of parliamentary and political activity during 2016 and likely into 2017. If any changes are proposed as a result of the review, they will first have to be put to a referendum before they can be adopted.

Gibraltar is keeping a wary eye too on Spain, which has yet to swear in a government following an inconclusive general election last December. The future of cross-border relations will depend not just on whether the UK remains within the EU, but on the outcome of the post-election wrangling in Spain.

But even as Spanish politicians try to hammer out a coalition pact in a bid to avoid a return to the polls in June, there is grassroots contact across the border.

The Cross Frontier Group, which brings together business and union interests from Gibraltar and the Campo de Gibraltar, is forging ahead with a proposal to access EU funding for cross-border initiatives. Separately, the government continues to maintain contact with Spanish politicians ranging from PSOE senators to the mayor of La Linea, Juan Franco.

The hope is that, having cleared the EU referendum hurdle, Gibraltar will be able to develop positive dialogue with Spain, irrespective of who is in government. There is much to be gained through practical cooperation in areas as diverse as commerce, culture and sport.

There is, inevitably, a degree of caution. Spain’s acting Foreign Minister, José Manuel García-Margallo, has signalled that if Britain left the EU - and if his party remained in power - he would seek to revive the joint sovereignty proposal robustly rejected by Gibraltar in 2002. 

It would be a move doomed to failure because Gibraltar will have nothing to do with such a a proposal, and neither will the UK. Their shared view is that nothing can be decided on Gibraltar’s future without the agreement of the Gibraltarians.

When he was sworn in as Gibraltar’s new Governor last January, Lieutenant General Edward Davis reaffirmed the UK’s double-lock commitment to the people of Gibraltar, underscoring their inalienable right to self-determination and the UK’s commitment to secure their consent in all matters that pertain to the sovereignty of Gibraltar.  

In doing so, he was reflecting the words of one of his predecessors, General Sir William Jackson.

“Gibraltar is neither Spain’s to claim nor Britain’s to give,” Sir William wrote, in a sentence that resonates to this day and sums up the situation succinctly.

“It is the rock of the Gibraltarians.”

This will be the last item on the New Statesman’s Gibraltar hub for at least a while. We’ve thoroughly enjoyed bringing you insights and hopefully greater understanding of the issues affecting the Rock as well as its politics, culture, geology and a great deal else. We would like to thank our sponsors the Gibraltar government, our many writers and above all our readers.

Charlotte Simmonds, editor, March 2014-March 2015

Guy Clapperton, editor March 2015-March 2016

Brian Reyes is the editor of the Gibraltar Chronicle.