Spain’s tourist numbers up in 2021 but still fall short of pre-Covid levels

Tourist arrivals in Spain leapt in the first nine months of 2021 compared with the previous year, but still remained far below pre-Covid levels, official data showed on Wednesday.

Spain's tourist numbers up in 2021 but still fall short of pre-Covid levels
A tourist couple in the Dalt Vila neighbourhood of Ibiza. A total of 4.7 million tourists visited Spain in September 2021. Photo: JAIME REINA / AFP

During the period, Spain welcomed 19.7 million tourists, an increase of 17.2 percent over the figures for same period in 2020, the National Statistics Institute (INE) calculated.

Prior to the pandemic — when Spain was the world’s number-two tourist destination and the sector accounted for some 12 percent of its economy — nearly 70 million people visited in the first nine months of 2019, the INE said.

Although the data point to an improvement in the tourism sector, they fall far short of the government’s forecast for some 45 million visitors this year — approximately half that of 2019.

The figures “confirm that the recovery of international tourism is under way and that in 2022 we could return to pre-pandemic levels,” said Tourism Minister Reyes Maroto.

In September, tourist arrivals stood at 4.7 million, an increase of more than 300 percent from the same month in 2020.

Maroto said Spain was hoping to welcome between “10.7 and 10.9 million” visitors in the last three months of the year.

In the first nine months, the largest number of visitors were French, accounting for more than four million arrivals, followed by Germans who
made up 3.4 million visits, and Britons who accounted for 2.3 million.

In the same period, the most popular destinations were the Balearic Isles, the northeastern region of Catalonia, and Andalusia in the south, the INE said.

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TRAVEL: Tourists in Spain will also be eligible for free train tickets

In welcome news for tourists and travellers in Spain, holidaymakers will be eligible to take advantage of Spain's 100% discounts on train travel later in the year.

TRAVEL: Tourists in Spain will also be eligible for free train tickets

Tourists will be eligible for Spain’s free train ticket scheme that will be phased in later on this year, as confirmed to the Spanish press by sources in Spain’s Ministry of Transport this week.

“If a foreign tourist is a frequent user of the [train] network, he can make use of this subscription. If they want to complete the trips, they will not be asked for any type of card,” the source said.

Additionally, in further news of particular interest for British and American travellers, no differentiation will be made between tourists nor between EU and non-EU nationals for the discounts. Free train travel will be available to all tourists, regardless of where they’re from.

It is hoped that the free train travel will entice more visitors to Spain and continue the sector’s post-pandemic recovery, which for the first six months of the year exceeded pre-pandemic (2019) levels by 1.1 percent, according to figures from the association of Spanish tourism companies, Exceltur.

Tourism experts expect Spain to surpass the number of foreign visitors in the last four months of 2019 – over 20 million tourists – despite upwards inflationary pressures on the cost of flights and accommodation.

But like everything in life, there are terms and conditions. You won’t be able to waltz on any train in Spain for free, and it isn’t year-round.


This eye-catching travel discount will be available from September 1st to December 31st 2022, during which multi-journey train tickets on the trains outlined below will be free.

Free train travel

The 100 percent discount scheme, which will cost public coffers a reported €200 million, will only be valid on certain lines and comes amid a series of measures put in place by the government to try and ease the pain of rising inflation and prices, but also to lower pressures on fuel following the Russian invasion of Ukraine and ensuing energy crisis. 

READ ALSO: How much can you save on public transport in Spain with the new state discount?

“The government will subsidise 100 percent of the public service of commuter trains operated by Renfe. We hope that the autonomous communities can complement this enormous effort made by the Spanish government,” Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez said when announcing the scheme in the Spanish Congress.

But which trains will be free, when, and how can you take advantage of them?

Which trains are free?

Unfortunately, the Spanish government has not given everyone in Spain free train travel on every route and on every type of train.

There are rules.

Simply put, local and commuter trains will be free. Cercanías, Rodalies (Catalonia), and Media Distance (local and medium-distance journeys) will be 100 percent free of charge.

The policy is aimed at encouraging the use of trains as opposed to other fossil fuel intensive forms of transport, and it’s valid for journeys up to 300km.

That in mind, trips on long-distance or high-speed trains, such as AVE and Alvia, are not included in the plan.

Neither will the routes in Avlo, the low-cost AVE option established in 2021, nor the medium and high-speed Avants.

Avlo and Avants will instead have a 50 percent discount on the original price, as outlined by the government in June.

READ ALSO: Spain to offer free train trips: when, where and how?

The Spanish government are yet to announce in detail how exactly the discounts will work, or how to apply for them.