On Smart Tourism: Interview Laura Garcia Castellano

After being named the world’s first certified intelligent tourism destination in 2018, Benidorm experienced a sharp shock in 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic, which caused visitor numbers to drop by over 70%. Laura Garcia Castellano shares her insights into the intelligent tourism destination certification process and offers advice for other destinations looking to do the same. She also talks about how the destination is managing wastewater, plastics and litter. Plus, Laura explains how a walking and biking trail system within the destination encourages visitors to avoid using their cars.

In this podcast interview, Anula Galewska speaks with, the Promotion and Marketing Technician at Benidorm Tourism Foundation about what makes a smart destination, the sustainable tourism initiatives implemented in Benidorm and how the COVID-19 pandemic has affected the destination.


Anula: Introduce yourself, tell what you do and about Benidorm.

Laura: I am Laura from Visit Benidorm. It is a foundation; a mixed entity working to market and promote the destination in general. 48% of the entity is public and the rest is private. We prefer to be private because it is easier to work m much faster compared to public processes and a destination needs this kind of DMO. Visit Benidorm was established in 2009 and we are only 6 people who are working like we are 20 but it’s okay. We are trying to be the promoter of communication between the public and private sectors.

Anula: Please tell me something about the destination, Benidorm.

Laura: First of all, people don’t know who we are and where we are. We are in the south of Regional Valencia. We are quite famous as the European capital of sun and beach tourism. In fact, we produce more than 16.5 million overnight stays with hotels, flats and campsites. We are one of the four destinations in Spain after Madrid, Barcelona and Canary Island. We offer many options thanks to our weather. As I am looking at the beach now, it is more than 25 degrees and we are in October. So, normally we have a microclimate so thanks to that we are open all year round.

Apart from sun, beach and sea during winter, we have senior clients who come from north of Europe. We have a group of sports class that they train here in winter like football clubs and cyclists from Russia, Germany and also Spain. Also in the summer, we have more national clients and clients with families. During the year, we have an important percentage of international clients from the UK, Belgium, Holland, France and Italy as well. The destination is quite open to doing almost everything. If you go to our site which is: VisitBenidorm.es you can find all the options we have in the destination and it’s quite huge.

Benidorm Smart Destination
Anula: How has the pandemic impacted the destination, and do you see tourism coming back?

Laura: Just to give you an idea of how dramatic the situation was especially in Benidorm, the population in Benidorm is only 66,000. But we receive more than 16.5 million overnight stays so we can have maybe 400,000 tourists in a day, so it’s quite huge. So, 99% of the population in Benidorm living here depend on tourism for survival. We have more offers than we can manage and when the destination was completely closed last year we had a fall of 70% of the tourists. It’s not like other destinations such as Madrid, Barcelona, Valencia who have more population whereas we have more to offer than what our population needs so Benidorm was completely empty during the pandemic.

Anula: What percentage of GDP comes from tourism?

Laura: For example, we have 140 hotels here, job offers in the tourism centre in Benidorm is 60,000. So, our regulator accommodation was 65,000 beds. It was quite dramatic. Our overnight stays fell 70.6%. We have some hotels which opened slowly after the lockdown and now we are almost open completely. Our future perspective is quite positive because we have to be positive. all the private sectors are working hard to try to maintain and not to lose the property and hotels in this case. We are very proud of them. Now, we are positive because summer was really nice. We have more than 80% occupancy and many people on the beach doing different activities and we are very happy. But we have to continue working hard to be better.

Anula: What have you learned from this crisis of COVID 19?

Laura: First of all we didn’t know how to manage that, because it was the first case in history. At the same time, we were working as a smart destination to improve the destination. We had already started with the project of digitalisation to control the population, mass tourism, to control what’s happening in the destination, and mobility of the tourist in the destination. Before the COVID, we were working to control the mobility of the tourists in destinations with WiFi and censors.

Anula: Not everyone knows what a smart destination means. Can you give a brief overview of what that means?

Laura: Benidorm is the first intelligent tourist destination in the world certificated by the UNE 178501 in 2018. You have to fulfil some requirements like you have to improve the governance, your accessibility, technology, innovation, and sustainability to be a smart destination and you have to have more than 80 % in each of these points. When they tested us, governance was okay, which means making action plans, including different areas of the council and collaborating with private entities and public institutions, providing the council with efficient effective communication channels, and improving communication between visitors, residents and government. This is really important when people talk about sustainability, it’s not only about natural resources. We have to work to maintain that but also to improve our economy. We noticed that during the covid, our economy has to improve for a better and stronger future and the other important thing is social sustainability.

During the lockdown, Benidorm was empty, so our local residents and social sector were losing money as there was no tourism in Benidorm. So, we have to work to avoid these kinds of situations in the future. The other point accessibility means managing mobility, but not only mobility; also you have to be accessible for technological innovation, to make the residents access the public service easier and faster, technology is important to provide people with maximum access. With the aim of helping and advising local residents digitally, we need technology and innovation. For me technology and innovation go hand in hand, it’s not exactly the same but they go together. Innovation has to improve constantly not only in the question of technology but also in efficiency for example recycling. When these tests were done all the points were good and Benidorm’s urbanistic plan has been sustainable since 1950.

There is a very interesting history behind the creation of the destination, our mayor designed with other architectures a destination to be happy. They create vertical urbanistic plans instead of horizontal ones. Because we don’t have too much space, we improve the short area to build in a vertical way so it’s compact. If you create a compact destination you can go on foot every day and there is no need for a car. All buildings there are facing south so we have more sun and sun is our main resource. In fact, they manage the quality of the air. You need 40 micrograms of Nitrogen Dioxide and Benidorm was in this group. But now the criteria has been reduced to 10 micrograms and Benidorm has it. Last August we had 8.6% of Nitrogen Dioxide and we are one of them in Spain And it’s all thanks to these urbanistic plans.
Certified Smart Destination
Anula: Which of the initiatives or projects are you really proud of in terms of sustainability and smart destination? How smart technology has helped you to be more sustainable?

Laura: We passed all the points as mentioned earlier but not accessibility. We were sustainable but not accessible enough. We crossed both areas to improve the urbanistic plan and mobility. We created 120 cyclic paths. We can go by foot but we can also cycle electric bikes. We can control the mobility and record the other activities. In fact, in the last two, we closed the destination for pedestrians as we have a connection with the National Mobility of Benidorm. We have a new model that the cars can’t go 10-20-30 km per hour. The preference is always the pedestrian and these have reduced the mobility with cars and promote it through bicycle.

We are also controlling the mobility on beaches through WiFi. When someone logs on the WiFi on the beach we acquire their general information like gender, nationality, and we don’t want other information. If they are coming to the beach at 3 o’clock, and if the beach is normally busy during that hour we send the police to control the crowd and mass tourism. We can also send people to clean the area. Another thing is we also have taken care of the people with mobility needs. For example, an influencer is coming to check the mobility accessibility in the area and we are going to show him the cyclic paths, how to access the beach, we have services for these kinds of clients.

Anula: Can you tell me something about waste management and plastic reduction.

Laura: We have a lack of water and to have a destination like this we have to manage water in the hotel. There is a private entity which has created a lab called Dinapsis, with innovation and technology to improve the use of water resources. They have censored the distribution of the resources, they have worked to reduce the wastewater. We have invested in a recycling system to improve the water system because we don’t have water. We need to use rainwater and also to recycle water. We reuse 95% of the water and lose only 5%. The normal average is 75% in Spain and we are 20% higher than the rest and we are working really hard. In the last 25 years, we have improved the management of water.

Anula: What about solid waste like plastic and littering?

Laura: Recycling is very important and the government has to invest in recycling to manage solid waste. There is a department who are specialists in quality control. They check all the hotels for waste management and their separation. They also give recognition and points if they are using the sun as electricity. The mentality of tourists has changed and they are worried more about sustainability. They prefer going to a sustainable destination where there is a natural environment. If these kinds of tourists come here and they don’t see the destination is clean they can lose the tourist so hotels have to comply. We have a recognition system, workshops, training and there is a special site called Green Benidorm where the hoteliers can learn about these criteria of sustainability. We invite national and international press to see on-site how we have changed and improved. We have to make sure there is enough space for tourists and mass tourism is not only on the beach, but it’s everywhere.

Anula: Do you have any limit of tourists you can accept?

Laura: Our limit is the capacity of the beach. Before they were interested to sit near the sea but now there is space between them and they want to maintain distance. And the way to control that is to give them the option of mobility. On the beaches, we have enough spaces and we have created tours in; morning and afternoon. The number of tourists is important but it is also important to know how to control them, and how to create mobility options for everyone. We have two beaches, where Levante beach has more people and Morante beach has no people. Because they don’t want to go by car, they want to walk so we have to provide them with the mobility option.

Anula: What is the next big goal for Benidorm in terms of sustainability and smart technology?

Laura: For us, it is important to create a sustainable observatory. We have a small office which controls the big data of the destination, recycling, water consumption, WiFi, number of people on the beach, number of people in hotels and apartments. We also have control of the monitoring site, how they and what are the expectations of tourists about the destination and also the opinion about it. With this data, we create reports and sell them to hotels, apartments, tour operators. With these reports, we monitor the hotels if they have reduced the quality of their food and beverage. So, we have to continue in this way and this kind of information is really important. We have to work to reduce carbon footprints, create areas of cultural heritage, and work for the economy to have a better future. This observation is working for social, cultural and natural resources.
Benidorm Smart Tourism

Anula: What would be your advice for a similar kind of destination to go in this direction?
Laura: The creation of DMO is important because without governance it is very complicated. Collaboration between the private and public sector is equally important. The private sector has incredible ideas and it is important to listen to them and public institutions have money. So it is necessary to combine that and work together. In the European Union, there are really nice acts where they want to give you resources to improve sustainably and digitally. And you have to take the benefit of that. If you don’t know how to do it, you have to ask. Try to work together with other destinations as well, we have to be together to help each other and share the ideas together. There are manuals and special companies that give you an opportunity to manage your destination and that is why DMO is very important in the first place.

Just to finish I want to say people ask me why you are working so hard to get tourists, you already have lots. But no, today we have tourists, tomorrow we might not. Tourists change, but you also have to work to give them better offers to get better tourists. We have to work to increase the occupancy of the hotels, to support them. Everything changes and tourism is changing and we don’t have the same tourists as in 20 years. If you don’t work then you might lose these kinds of tourists.

To learn more about Visit Benidorm, visit them via:
Website: www.visitbenidorm.travel
Instagram: www.instagram.com/visitbenidorm
Twitter: www.twitter.com/visitbenidorm
LinkedIn: www.linkedin.com/company/visitbenidorm
Facebook: www.facebook.com/visitbenidorm
YouTube: www.youtube.com/c/lifeinbenidorm

About
Laura Garcia Castellano is working as the Promotion and Marketing Specialist at Visit Benidorm. She specialises in the markets of Southern Europe and speaks many languages including French, Portuguese, Italian and English. She combines geographical immersion in these markets with the promotion of sports tourism, in which she has specialised, with special emphasis on running, swimming and diving. In her work, Laura places particular value on women in sports (#SHErunsBenidorm project) and highlights the importance of family conciliation, an area in which she also works and has specialized.

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