Hoteliers in the Basque city of Bilbao have heavily criticised shopkeepers for refusing to open on bank holidays or, in some cases, even the days in between, saying tourists find their destination ‘deserted’ and do not bother to return.
Monday this week – August 15 – was a public holiday and, being attached to a weekend, gave many working Spaniards the chance to take a short break – but nothing was open, not even the huge high-street chain stores.
And every year at Easter, all bar the supermarkets are closed on Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, Easter Sunday and Easter Monday, leaving only a Saturday in the middle of a five-day period when the city showed any sign of life.
“We work hard to get clients to come and stay in our hotels, clients from all over the world. We convince them to come here rather than go to another city or country, especially over Easter,” says Álvaro Díaz-Munío, head of the association Destino Bilbao which represents around 25 hotels, guest houses and hostels in the city.
“But when they go home, what do they tell everyone about Bilbao? They’ll almost certainly say, ‘don’t go to Bilbao at Easter, it’s shut’. And they’ll say the same about the December bank holiday weekend [December 6 is Constitution Day and December 8 is Day of the Immaculate Conception, both national holidays],or about any other holiday weekend.
“Something has got to change, and right now,” storms Díaz-Munío.
Although nobody can ‘force shops to open’, Destino Bilbao admits, ‘one supposes this is a free market based upon healthy competition’.
Spanish law allows some areas of the country to open a maximum of eight public holidays a year and others, in major tourism belts, whenever they wish.
Bilbao falls into the former category, which means ‘there are plenty of small businesses we know of which want to open over every bank holiday’, according to the association, but ‘plenty of major chains which can, and do not want to’.
Díaz-Munío says he ‘would have thought’ that ‘at least big companies’ such as Zara, Basque supermarket chain Eroski, sports empire Decathlon, and Spain’s largest national department store El Corte Inglés ‘would be willing to open over the holidays’, but says they never do.
Not just Bilbao
Bilbao is only one example, although it is one of the few destinations where hoteliers have voiced discontent about it.
Whilst it is perfectly possible to go clothes-shopping, buy a mobile phone or have a meal out in Madrid or Barcelona on a Sunday, or even go to a mainstream chemist’s – not just an on-duty
overnight shift pharmacy – on a Sunday night in Benidorm, less world-famous but equally pro-tourism areas across the country continue to view Sundays and all bank holidays, even local neighbourhood ones, as sacred.
Expatriates recently complained that on a bank holiday, ‘the perfect opportunity to capitalise on tourist spending’, everywhere in Jávea (Alicante province) was shut, despite being a town which quadruples in population in summer and sees hordes of short-break visitors over holiday weekends.
Many close all afternoon in summer, or even shut for the whole of August – reducing their trading hours at a time of year when potential customers multiply in number.
Tourist destinations outside of large cities or package resorts even shut year-round on Saturdays from 13.00 and all day Sunday, and close daily between 13.00 and 17.30 every month of the year.
Holidaymakers in very popular but less globally-commercialised towns have even complained they cannot find anywhere to eat out or go for a drink and a snack over the four-and-a-half-hour lunch break because the restaurants and cafés close.
And despite the new national law allowing unlimited retail opening in certain specific areas declared as official ‘tourism hotspots’, town councils and local residents have fought hard for their designation as such to be cancelled.
Small businesses claim that if large chains open when they choose to shut, they will lose trade.
At least one shopping centre in the cosmopolitan holiday region of the Comunidad Valenciana has been ordered by its local council to cut its opening hours and reduce the number of bank holidays it trades on.
And middle-of-the-day shutdowns, bank holiday and Sunday closures do not only catch foreign tourists unawares – those travelling to coastal towns from large inland cities are perplexed and annoyed when they expected to be able to visit shops on Saturday afternoons, or all bar two hours a day between 14.00 and 16.00, and find everywhere closed.
These Spanish visitors argue that longer opening hours, especially when the tourist influx causes the population to spike, generate considerable profits and allow extra jobs to be created and existing employees to earn overtime money.