For years, I've been hearing about the premier tourism event in Spain: FITUR, which seems to be one of the few that fills the IFEMA convention center completely.
This year, the issue of rural depopulation was on the agenda, so it seemed like the right time for me to get closer and explore it. Here are the three main reflections that my experience at the event left me with.
1.Fusion of cultural festival and corporate event, with sustainability as a pending issue.
In just a few steps, you could go from experiencing flight simulations to understanding the culture of kimonos or admiring the craftsmanship of Andalusian wine. Probably the largest and most culturally diverse event I've ever attended. It was as if each culture was trying to distill itself to its essence and put everything on the line. Tremendous organization and staging.
The most vibrant moment for me was a powerful flamenco dance performed by professionals who exuded pure passion.
From that sensory enjoyment, connecting and exploring collaborations became very friendly and fluid. Without a doubt, the people who attend are top-notch and relevant; it's a must if your sector is tourism.
Unfortunately, it's challenging to hold events of such magnitude in a sustainable manner, but there were details missing that are already standard in other spaces, such as water refill stations or alternatives to single-use plastic. The number of plastic water bottles was painful and unnecessary.
Congratulations to Andalusia or Turespaña for having the most visible and accessible water fountains!
Overall, there was a general sense that sustainability was a peripheral issue or a future opportunity, not a fundamental aspect planted at the core. This is likely a true reflection of our Spanish social reality.
However, I thoroughly enjoyed several sections where sustainability and positive impact were genuinely at the forefront. I'll delve deeper into this in point 3.
2. "Seasonal Neighbor", an opportunity to explore
One of the sessions that impressed me the most was led by Ana Abade from Booking.com, where the results of a report analyzing the impacts of tourism at the local, social, economic, and environmental levels were presented, marking a pioneering initiative to date.
I was thrilled to hear how progress is being made in prioritizing and addressing the negative impacts of tourism, with an emphasis on cultural, social, and environmental protection, not only in overcrowded destinations like Venice or Machu Picchu but also in major cities like Malaga, Barcelona, or Madrid.
The main premise is that there are three types of people: visitors (who only spend the day), tourists (who stay for several nights), and residents, each with their own challenges.
Visitors consume services but often leave little value, even bringing their own food. How to ensure they pay for this value? Venice recently implemented a 5 euro entrance fee to the city, in addition to setting a different cost for its iconic water bus, the vaporetto, for visitors and locals.
Tourists seem to have a more positive economic impact, as they typically spend more on accommodation, food, and services in the area. However, they face significant environmental challenges, especially related to their carbon footprint from transportation.
Finally, there are the residents, a permanent part of the equation.
However, there is an important group that I feel has been overlooked in FITUR discussions: the "seasonal or temporary neighbors", people who are temporarily adopted by a destination for a certain period. This is a niche that has generally flown under the radar, except for retirees, vacationers, or expatriates.
But now, it's one of the fastest-growing niches in many parts of the world, and it's due to remote work. Whether hybrid or permanent, there are more and more what are called "Location independent workers": people who have the ability to take their work with them and temporarily move to a location.
This is a segment that destinations like the Canary Islands or Portugal have been working on for some time, but it is still unknown to the rest of the world. In fact, I went booth by booth, and none of the regional stands on the peninsula could tell me about any services or opportunities for this growing remote work audience.
Remote work is an opportunity that is taking shape, offering the possibility of longer and less seasonal stays, which can have a positive economic, social, and environmental impact if managed properly and responsibly.
It's an opportunity that rural destinations should explore, and at Rooral.co, we're excited to collaborate on this initiative.
3. Specialized areas are where the action is
For those of you who are unfamiliar with FITUR, there are nine specialized areas dedicated to promoting sectors that drive diversity and sustainability in tourism. These are: LGBT+, Women, Talent, Language, Cruises, Know How & Export, Screen, FiturTechy, and FiturNext.
With so much happening at the same time (pay attention because at times you can feel overwhelmed with so much stimulus and people), and with our interest in how tourism can be a force for sustainable change and positive impact, my attention was primarily drawn to FiturNext, as it explored how tourism can contribute to territorial revitalization and avoid depopulation.
I would like to congratulate the organizers of this section. They managed to bring together a mix of key players, both public and private, who are leading regenerative tourism in rural areas.
The presentations and roundtable discussions were super interesting and valuable. It was truly a space where rural regeneration and sustainability were at the center of design and conversation.
They also awarded sustainable tourism projects that are creating a real and deep impact in our rural Spain with projects such as the Genalguacil Museum Village, the bike routes of Caminos del Cid or "Cartografías" of Mas Blanco.
All of this can be seen reflected in this year's report entitled "Towards territorial revitalization through tourism." Highly recommended.
Congratulations to the entire FiturNext team, Ideas for Change led by Pako and Sandra for bringing probably the most important gap in our country, the urban-rural gap, and inspiring us on how sustainable tourism can be a force for change.
In general, I consider participating in FITUR to have been of great value, although my interest in returning will likely depend on the themes of the specialized areas, which is where I believe the heart of what matters to Rooral lies: tourism that helps care for and protect our social, natural, and cultural heritage in rural areas.