THE REIGN OF SPAIN IS OVER
... discovering the delights of destinations such as Croatia ...
By Damien Fletcher
THE sun is setting on Spain. Britain's favourite holiday resort is losing out to the upstarts of eastern Europe.
Ever since the package holiday was invented 40 years ago millions of us have flocked to the bars and beaches of sunny Espana - but new figures show that the reign of Spain could be coming to an end. Holiday firms are reporting a 20 per cent drop in the number of Brits taking their holidays in Spain and a huge increase in trips to eastern European countries and the US. Tour operators First Choice are axing their holidays on the Costa Brava - once a mainstay of British tour operating - because they feel hotel quality does not match prices.
And Thomas Cook is shifting 20,000 package holidays from Spain to Turkey, while Cosmos is also pulling Ibiza from its 2005 summer brochures.
Instead, holiday-makers are discovering the delights of destinations such as Croatia, with its timeless, elegant cities and beautiful, unspoiled beaches.
But above all, they are re-discovering what once drew them in their millions to Spain - a place in the sun where food and drink are still incredibly cheap. According to travel experts, the strong euro means that it's getting too costly to go on package trips to Spain, so Brits are looking to non-euro countries such as Croatia, Bulgaria and Turkey where they can get more for their money.
A typical family holiday costs £1,290 in Spain, compared to £800 to Bulgaria.
An average family meal in a Spanish tourist resort will set you back £17, whereas in Croatia you would spend a paltry £4.70.
Desperate Spanish hoteliers have slashed prices to tempt people back. Jose Prieto, president of the Malaga Hotel Association, says: "Some hotels in this area are cutting prices by up to 20 per cent."
But a Thomas Cook spokesman says: "Turkey, Bulgaria and Croatia are very popular this year.
"We have added Bulgaria, Croatia and Morocco to our directory because everyone wants to go to these places.
"They are finding that their spending money is going a long way. People are also flocking to Florida and the Caribbean because you can get two dollars to the pound there."
Another nail in the Spanish coffin is the internet which has encouraged millions to put together their own packages - which don't include Spain.
An easyJet spokesman says: "We've seen a massive increase in DIY holiday.
"Because so many people have access to the internet, they are surfing and finding the best bargains to piece together their own holiday.
"It works out cheaper and you're not restricted to what the package offers you.
"We've seen significant increases in flights to Hungary, Slovenia and Prague."
And Richard Bowden-Doyle, UK managing director of lastminute.com, said: "There's a trend towards people booking later.
"Two years ago 40 per cent of people booked their holiday six months or more in advance, but that's down to 20 per cent.
"We all have more uncertainty in our lives and there's a trend towards not making _ a commitment - such as to an expensive holiday - too far in advance."
Another sign of the interest in these countries is the commercial property boom they've experienced, with entrepreneurs eager to replicate the success of the bars in Ibiza.
Amar Sodhi, director of property firm Avatar International, says: "Initially we started selling in Turkey, but when we moved into Croatia and Bulgaria we realised there was a lot of interest in these countries.
"The buyers are people who missed out on the Spanish boom, but don't want to miss out on this one."
It also seems that more of us are interested in holidays that involve more than applying sun-tan lotion and turning the pages of a paperback.
Wey're looking for a bit of adventure and consider the rugged coasts of Turkey or Bulgaria or the romance of north Africa to be more challenging than lounging on the crowded beaches of the Costa del Sol.
A spokesman from the Association of British Travel Agents says: "The trendiest destination this year is undoubtedly Eastern Europe and especially the former Yugoslavia.
"We have been told that many Spanish hoteliers are even travelling to eastern Europe to set up hotels there, because that's where the market is going.
"People have been to the standard Costa destinations as children and now they're looking for something a little bit different.
"The British tourist industry has always been very responsive to changes in demand from our customers.
"Because of this, tour operators are now concentrating more on holidays in other European destinations, and specialist holidays like activity or long-haul breaks." But it's not all misery in Majorca... We may be turning our backs on package holidays but we are buying property so we can take breaks when we feel like it - last year 45 per cent of all homes in Spain sold to non-Spaniards went to British buyers.