Captivating Catalonia

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Barcelona has proven its appeal by becoming one of the world’s most popular destinations, but the city is also the centerpiece and starting point of a visit to the captivating region of Catalonia, according to Cristina Gargallo, director-North America for the Catalan Tourist Board.

“Many more visitors are venturing outside the city to explore all that the destination has to offer,” she said. Catalonia, a culturally rich region in northeastern Spain with its own traditions and language (Catalan), has seen a dramatic increase in visitors from North America. In 2017 Catalonia drew 1.1 million visitors from the U.S, up a robust 29 percent from the previous year with that same pace continuing in the first months of 2018.

In all, Catalonia had a record 19 million international visitors in 2017, Gargallo said. Many travelers have become familiar with Barcelona because it serves as a popular port of call and homeport for cruise ships. (Barcelona saw over 3 million cruise passengers in 2017.) As a result, the city’s visitor demographic had traditionally skewed older. That, however, is changing, as increasing numbers of younger travelers and families discover the destination.

That shift in the visitor profile has stimulated travel outside Barcelona—as travelers explore all that Catalonia has to offer. Traditionally, the region has been known for heritage and culture with 11 UNESCO World Heritage sites(ranging from historic buildings to cave art to churches), three masterpieces of Intangible Cultural Heritage and two Biosphere Reserves. It is also internationally renowned for artists like Salvador Dalí and Joan Miró, and the unique architecture of Antoni Gaudí.

Now, food and wine are a major tourism motivator to Catalonia, Gargallo said. The culinary scene is dynamic in Barcelona, which boasts no fewer than 55 Michelin-starred restaurants. One restaurant just outside Barcelona, El Celler de Can Roca in Girona, has been voted Best Restaurant in the World twice.

Also just outside of is the producing area for Cava, the Spanish sparkling wine, almost all of which is produced in Catalonia.

In the end, the regional experience depends on what the client wants—whether it’s culture and heritage, the scenic vistas of the region’s 360-mile Mediterranean coastline, mountain experiences in the Catalan Pyrenees or food and wine.

“We want to be sure they delve a little deeper,” Gargallo said. “If they just stay in Barcelona, they are missing a lot of what Catalonia has to offer.”

Aside from the appeal of the destination itself, Catalonia’s growth is also a result of a favorable exchange rate with the dollar and increased airlift from the U.S., Gargallo said. When Catalonia opened its U.S. tourism office in 2011, there were direct flights to Barcelona from six U.S. airports. Now there are direct flights from 12 airports, with all major carriers flying to the city as well as low-cost airlines like Norwegian and Level.

In the past year, direct flights were introduced from Los Angeles and Oakland, as well as from Fort Lauderdale; and American Airlines started flying from Chicago. Also, Level has begun offering flights from Boston.

More competition means lower fares. “Until last year there were no direct flights from the West Coast and now we have that entire market to tap into,” Gargallo said.”

The region’s continually expanding highspeed rail network is another factor in its growth as a popular destination. Andalusia in southern Spain can be reached in six hours from Barcelona, and Madrid is just two and one-half hours away. And the trip to Paris by high-speed rail is just over six hours.