The gap between Spain’s image and the country’s reality

Even before Spain’s crisis and despite some notable political, economic and social achievements, the country’s image abroad and within Spain was out of sync with reality. This situation worsened during the recession, which is now over, but the old stereotypes about Spain as a country of little more than flamenco, bullfights, fiestas and siestas persist.

Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy promised during his trip to China last year to shorten the time it takes to approve visas for Chinese tourists. Epitomising the stereotypes that have long characterised Spain, the English-language China Daily illustrated its article on visas with a bull being fought by a ‘flamenco dancer’, which it confused with a matador.

The crisis has clearly dented the country’s image. Yet the perception, for many, is the reality.

The massive rise in unemployment, largely as a result of the collapse of the real estate and construction sectors, which generated a disproportionate share of GDP, hogs the headlines and obscures the achievements since the transition to democracy, most of which have not been eroded.

These achievements include multinationals with leading positions in the global economy (the stock of Spanish investment abroad is higher than Italy’s), the world’s ninth largest stock of inward foreign direct investment, the successful absorbing of some 6 million immigrants over the past 20 years (some of them are returning) and the longest life expectancy in the European Union (testament to the creation of a welfare system and the generally healthier diet).

Flamenco, bullfighting and fiestas are fine to promote the tourism industry as it plays a vital role in the economy (generating around 12% of GDP and employing roughly one in every 10 people), particularly at a time of high unemployment. Close to 30% of Japanese respondents in a recent survey spontaneously associated the word ‘Spain’ with bulls and almost 20% with flamenco.

Yet Spain also needs a more ‘serious’ image in order to boost exports and make the country known for other achievements and not just as a fun playground.

A report published by the Spain Image Observatory of the Real Instituto Elcano, based on surveys in the form of questions by the Reputation Institute in 57 countries, compares data on the reality of Spain with that corresponding to how it is perceived abroad. The results show that in some areas there is a significant gap between the image and the reality.

For example, Spain’s participation in peace missions is ranked 18th in the perception ranking and 11th according to data produced by the International Institute for Strategic Studies – a gap of seven places. In foreign direct investment in Spain, the distance is nine places as Spain is ranked 20th and 11th in the respective rankings. By far the largest gap (19 places) is in the sphere of happiness (emotional wellbeing): Spain is ranked 11th by the Reputation Institute and 30th according to the UN’s World Happiness Report which attempts to measure this state with ‘objective’ data.

The big distance in the degree of happiness in Spain as perceived by foreigners and the reality as confirmed by Spaniards reflects the sorry state of the Spanish economy, particularly unemployment, but also the tendency of Spaniards to be much more pessimistic about their country than foreigners (and also much more optimistic when the going is good). Furthermore, while the view of Spain abroad has improved over the last two years, within Spain it has worsened.

Elcano’s report identifies various areas where Spain’s public and private sectors need to concentrate their efforts in order for Spain to be better appreciated abroad. In all of them, the reality is much better than the image abroad and so there is room to improve the perception of Spain. These areas include culture, personal security (Spain is the sixth safest country in the world), foreign direct investment, attractiveness for foreign students, exports and recognised brands.

In only two areas, government effectiveness and lifestyle, is Spain’s image better than the reality.

One problem is that Spain needs to speak with one voice. However, its 17 autonomous regions pull in different directions – one of them, Catalonia, is pushing for independence – and this creates confusion abroad

It is not easy for Spain to change its image and improve the perception of the nation brand. The country is viewed in surveys as ‘hot’ (creative, passionate and not very serious), as opposed to ‘cold’ (efficient, rigorous and serious) like Germany and the UK. The ‘hot’ image benefits the flourishing tourism industry, but not many other parts of the economy, and the way the country is perceived abroad.

Chile was so determined to impress upon the world its ‘coldness’ that it shipped a 60-tonne iceberg to Seville in 1992, and made it the centrepiece of its World’s Fair pavilion.

Spain does not have to go to such extremes, but it needs to be more proactive.