Arturo Bernal Bergua heads one of the Andalucian regional government’s most important ministries, encompassing tourism, culture and sport. With a degree in economics and business administration and a master's degree in business management and administration, this native of Málaga, born in 1966, has an outstanding professional curriculum – in both the private sector and public administration. Before joining the government, he was managing director of Extenda – the Andalucian public company for international promotion – and previously general manager of Costa del Sol Tourism and Planning.
In this interview he talks about the major international golf events being held this year in Andalucía, highlighted by the Solheim Cup, and the importance they will have in boosting the region’s tourism promotion.
For golf tourism, 2023 will – above all else – be remembered as the Solheim Cup year. Your ministry has played a key role in this major women’s golf being held in Andalucía. What will the tournament mean for Andalucian golf in general and for the Costa del Sol in particular?
It is going to mean a great deal in several aspects. Firstly, the international image of Andalucía as the best golf destination in the world. Secondly, it will have an important impact on the area, before and after it is held, in terms of employment and revenue, both direct and indirect. The Solheim Cup will leave an indelible mark on the destination, as the Ryder Cup did. More than two decades later it (Ryder Cup) is still perceived as a significant boost and a great showcase for linking the Andalucía brand to sporting values such as effort and commitment.
Hosting the Solheim Cup will mark a before and after in the strategic approach to golf in Spain and Andalucía, and it will also help consolidate the region as the home of golf and women's sport. Since being named as host of the competition, we have been making a special effort to involve both society in general and golf courses throughout Andalucía, but also the rest of the country. In the case of Andalucía, we have ambassadors in each province who are promoting interest in this event at their courses and among members of the public.
All those involved have highlighted the fact that their personal intervention was key to securing this tournament. How did the possibility of bringing the Solheim Cup here arise?
We have been working on this event since 2016 and 2017, when we began to think that it would be a good option for the Costa del Sol and Andalucía. It was difficult, with a lot of competition, but the organisers were able to see our potential as a preferential and benchmark destination. I will never forget at the 2019 WTM, at a time when I was responsible for the Costa del Sol tourism board, we announced our candidacy after a meeting with representatives of the Ladies European Tour. Since then, and until our designation in 2020, we have worked hard with the different administrations and the sector, both golf courses – especially Finca Cortesín – and hotels, as well as complementary amenities, etc.
What were the biggest stumbling blocks during the negotiations?
Obviously, convincing the organisers that we were the best, facing competition – as I said – that was very tough and of a very high quality. In preliminary studies that were carried out in the bidding process, the organisers concluded that the direct economic impact of the Solheim Cup would exceed €227 million. The promoters and organisers of this event also consider that it will be a tool to attract American and Asian tourists (especially from China, Japan and South Korea), markets in which the Costa del Sol still has plenty of room for growth.
Do you think that public opinion in Andalucía is aware of the importance of major events like this for promoting tourism in our region?
Of course, the tourism sector is perfectly clear about it, as are the fans. The general public, I think, has gradually come to understand its importance, after the many international sports events hosted by us, some of them more popular, such as football and basketball, but all equally important.
We not only have the responsibility to convey to those who see us from outside that in Andalucía we have everything: climate, hotel facilities, recreational, leisure and cultural tourism, magnificent sports facilities... Everything, I stress, which enables golf to be an element of wealth creation that attracts golfing tourists, who have a very important impact on our region. Now we have to finish bringing golf closer to the people. The regional ministry has promoted golf as a sport that is accessible to everyone, with public facilities such as La Cartuja in Sevilla, La Garza in Jaén and El Toyo in Almería.
Furthermore, I would say that Andalucía has had something of an “idyll” with the golf segment for years, an industry that brings a great deal of economic, social and sporting value to the region. Every year 800,000 tourists come to Andalucía to play at our region's golf courses, and this is hugely important for the destination, both qualitatively and quantitatively. Now, with the Solheim Cup, which is the biggest women's team golf event, we want to make additional progress in attracting women golfers, who account for between 20 and 30 per cent of the total number of tourists who visit the region with this motivation – some 120,000 annually.
Valderrama has signed an agreement to host a major LIV Golf tournament for five years, currently the only European venue on this tour. Valderrama and your ministry have maintained a close relationship over the past 25 years. Will this collaboration with the Sotogrande club be maintained for this new tournament?
The relationship between the regional ministry of tourism and Valderrama is founded on a partnership. We have collaborated loyally for many years. The course’s reputation is global and it is a privileged showcase to promote Andalucía’s image in millions of homes. This close collaboration is destined to be long-lasting.
The regional ministry has also maintained a very good and fruitful collaboration with the European (now DP World) Tour. Do you plan to replace the Andalucía Masters that was previously held at Valderrama with another tournament or continue to hold it at a different course?
Our commitment to attracting major sports events is very clear, and among them is golf, an important generator of economic revenue. To that end, we collaborate with all the courses. Of course, with Valderrama our relationship has been close and will continue to be so in the future. We have intensified our work with the main golf operators, and we have made a commitment to work together with the IAGTO to ensure that the Andalucian destination hosts one of the meetings organised by them every two years, which are considered to be the main professional forums for intermediaries in this segment.
Andalucía is unquestionably Europe's leading destination for golf tourism. What do you think sets the region apart from other destinations and where could we improve?
Few destinations in the world can bring together in a single territory such diverse options, in a safe environment, with excellent infrastructures for accommodation and transport, for leisure and business, for relaxation and for sport. We are now focused on the sustainability of the Andalucian golf sector. In fact, practically 100 per cent of the courses located in this area are irrigated with recycled water. Our customers and golfers are very sensitive to sustainability, and in this respect we are more than meeting those expectations.
We are also working to strengthen our positioning in the main European markets and in more distant markets with the greatest potential, such as the United States, Canada and Asia, with initiatives such as this tournament (Solheim Cup) which is, I repeat, a very important challenge and a great opportunity to highlight the value of this sport and what it means for Andalucía.
The promotional activities that we carry out throughout the year highlight the fact that Andalucía is the home of sport, both nationally and internationally, with golf being one of our fundamental pillars, based on a potent range of amenities comprising more than 120 courses.
In which source markets, consolidated or emerging, do you think we should concentrate our promotional efforts?
Our objective is, as I noted, to strengthen our positioning in the main European outbound markets and in distant markets with the greatest potential. Our promotional activities include penetrating the golf tourism sector through alliances and agreements with intermediaries and professional associations related to the industry, although latest consumer trends among golfers make it just as advisable to reach the end consumer directly, with a communication strategy aimed at a community of active golfers in order to arouse interest in and increase loyalty to the destination.
In general, depending on the areas, golf tourism has recovered well after the pandemic, even surpassing 2019 figures. What are your forecasts for the near future?
The forecasts are very optimistic. Golf, which has been attracting around 600,000 travellers annually, is positioned as a major attraction to lure foreign visitors and reduce seasonality, especially now that long-distance travel is recovering and we have achieved new air connections, such as the direct Málaga-New York flight. Golf is a segment that has a lot of potential for development in the region and we are convinced that this reactivation of tourism will boost figures for this product even more. This is what we are hearing from businesspeople and professionals in the sector, who are optimistic for the coming months – with an increase in bookings and traditional markets now recovering. Golf will undoubtedly be one of the driving forces of tourism in Andalucía and will contribute, in the short term, to pre-pandemic levels of activity being restored.
Can you imagine Andalucía without golf?
Not really. We are already part of the history of this sport. The region has hosted 63 top international men's tournaments and is the region in continental Europe that has hosted the most DP World Tour events. Since 1966, 21 editions of the Volvo Masters, 11 of the Open de Andalucía, 11 of the Open de España, eight of the Estrella Damm N.A. Andalucía Masters, three Volvo World Match Play Championships, three World Cups, two World Golf Championships and four other open tournaments have been played in Andalucía.
Plus, as the grand climax, the 1997 Ryder Cup, also played at Royal Valderrama Club, where the European team beat the Americans (including Tiger Woods) thanks to the excellent efforts of the players and, above all, Seve Ballesteros, their captain. The same way that tournament served to showcase the benefits of Andalucía to millions of homes around the world, in 2023 the Solheim Cup, another team championship between the United States and Europe, will once again be a turning point and an inescapable focus for fans and spectators.
Golf is an essential tourism and sports industry for the region and, for this reason, the Andalucian regional government views this segment as a fundamental part of its strategy.