Leveraging national assets
My fellow Manila Bulletin columnist, Bernardo Villegas, recently commented thoughtfully on Spain’s booming tourism industry. Over the past week, I’ve enjoyed touring Spain, and there are indeed, as Villegas wrote, many things that the Philippines and any other place seeking to develop its tourism industry can learn from this increasingly successful country.
We spent last evening, Saturday, in Granada at the Hotel Alixares, a five minute walk up a steep hill from Alhambra, the legendary palace fortress of the Nasrid sultans, rulers of the last Spanish Moorish kingdom. So enchanting is Alhambra that Sultan Boabdil wept as he entered exile in 1492. His mother Aisha is reported to have harshly said to him, “Do not weep like a woman for what you could not defend like a man.”
A harsh rebuke, Aisha must have been devastated to leave the fortress, set in a lush forest with an abundant water supply that flowed. The view of the valley below was sweeping, as stunning in its beauty as it was strategic militarily. Ferdinand, the conquering Catholic king, preserved the intricate Moorish tiles and ornamental reliefs throughout the fortress, but added his escudo prominently throughout.
In modern times, Alhambra fell into disrepair and was largely ignored until the American writer Washington Irving lived there while writing the romantic Tales of the Alhambra in 1832. Shortly after it was published, the Spanish government, acknowledging the cultural value of the former Moorish palace, made the fortress a national monument.
Alhambra was crowded Saturday with approximately 6,000 visitors from around the world. Europeans, North Americans, and Asians walked along its tiled hallways, pausing frequently to take in the beauty of the building and its surroundings, and to take photographs chronicling their visit to the centuries old monument to the struggle for control of Spain.
Following our tour, we took the No. 32 mini-bus for a 15-minute race to the city center and the Granada Cathedral. That ride with a cross-section of the world’s cultural representatives, demonstrated one of the principal lessons of place marketing: convenient, cheap, and efficient public transportation. As we whizzed through the narrow streets and by the even narrower alleyways, we glimpsed waiters preparing outdoor tables for diners who would arrive from 8:00 pm onwards for leisurely Saturday evening meals.
Granada itself, according to the guide books, is not a center of culinary excellence, but it did prove to be a cultural cornucopia. Following a tour of the cathedral and brief stops in the tiny Moorish souvenir shops lining the surrounding alleyways, we strolled along the Plaza Bib-Rambla, where a Flamenco artist entertained the weekend crowd that enthusiastically encouraged him by clapping along.
Suddenly, we heard the sounds of an orchestra in concert, and more clapping. Following the music we came upon Plaza Cano, a square outside the cathedral. The surrounding buildings provided an amazing acoustical environment, and we stood mesmerized as the orchestra played through the evening to standing applause from the audience.
Two things occurred to me as we strolled back to the bus stop afterwards. First, that at least on this weekend, dedicated to celebrating the feast of its patron saint Nuestra Señora de las Angustias, Granada was full of deeply compelling attractions. Second, that the plaza and the cathedral were a melting pot of cultures, including the Spanish. For the citizens had turned out in number, clearly proud of the show, and delighted with the display of Granada’s thriving cultural scene.
I am writing this column on the road to Toledo, and then Madrid. The rolling hills are filled with rows and rows of olive trees. As I watch them flash by, at least five qualities that lend themselves to marketing Spain occur to me.
First, is the sense of its history that the Spaniards enjoy, and leverage to their benefit. Second, this pride isn’t reactionary or defensive, despite the setbacks Spain suffered over the last two centuries as its colonial era closed. Of course, Spain is hardly united, but that harsh reality brings me to my third quality, and that is that chaos doesn’t inhibit progress. Spain is moving forward despite the obstacles.
Fourth, Spain has purposely and competently leveraged its national assets as revenue generators, and markets them relentlessly. As a result more tourists visit Spain each year than the entire population. Like the Philippines, Spain has a vibrant café and restaurant culture that is warmly welcoming. Fifth, it is local governments that foster economic and cultural development in their communities, and the private sector responds heartily.
When this column appears, we’ll be on a flight heading home to Manila. It will be good to get back to continue watching my adopted country work to achieve its incredible potential, too.