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

A watching brief. (Photo: Getty)
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Morning Call: The best from Gibraltar

A selection of the best articles about politics, business and life on the Rock from the last seven days.

Before this week’s round-up goes any further your correspondent wants to announce that Little Mix will be playing the Gibraltar Music Festival this year, as has just been confirmed by the Heatworld site. This is highlighted purely to prove we’re down with the kids, or it was until we realised that Little Mix has been running for almost half a decade. There are times when you just feel ancient.

Rather newer, but based on an old idea, the University of Gibraltar is readying itself for opening and former governor Lord Luce is going to be Chancellor, says Vox. Before term starts, students might like to get a bit of cardboard boat racing in, according to Euroweekly.

More seriously, Spain’s relations with Gibraltar may be improving further as the Mayor of La Linea had a good meeting with chief minister Fabian Picardo, says Spanish News Today. The economy is getting another boost as another gaming company moves in, the Olive Press tells us.

And as if to combine the education and economy themes, the Rock’s first School of Beauty is about to open, this story once again from the Olive Press. A strong economy looks set to grow further.

Guy Clapperton is the freelance journalist who edits the New Statesman’s Gibraltar hub. You can also find him in the Guardian, Computer Business Review and Professional Outsourcing which he edits.