Why pick a holiday in Gibraltar? ‘We couldn’t go anywhere else’
If the residents of Apes’ Den are pleased to see a larger than usual number of Britons snapping them, cooing over them or, indeed, edging gingerly away from them, they give little indication of it.
It is not much of a stretch to suggest that the social, political and economic ramifications of the current pandemic have been wholly lost on the crag-haunting, tourist-attracting Barbary macaques as they lounge around their lair high above the busy streets and marinas of Gibraltar.
The small but admirably menacing primates do what they always do: they skulk, squabble, snooze and groom each other – and study their visitors with a gaze that is disdainful until a particularly tempting rucksack renders it covetous.
The human denizens of the Rock are altogether more grateful for Gibraltar’s much-envied spot on the British government’s travel green list. And so are the many UK visitors who have touched down on the territory’s airstrip-cum-road in search of sun and an escape from the hardships of the past 15 months.
Malta will move to the green list at 4am on 30 June – with Madeira and the Balearic islands being added to the green “watchlist” at the same time – but, for now, Gibraltar remains the only familiar European option for those hankering for sun and sand.
Richard Candler, a 53-year-old prison officer from Devon, had intended to spend part of June in the US with his wife and two friends. But things had not panned out as planned and the group were exploring the historic gun batteries and tunnels of the Rock on a clammy Thursday afternoon. Taken as he was by the “fascinating” tunnels, Candler admitted Gibraltar had been very much Plan D.
“We were meant to be going to New York but that got cancelled, and then so did Florida,” he said. “Then we were going to go to Portugal but it turned amber.” Singapore, Iceland and the Faroe Islands were also mooted but, in the end, the group opted for Gibraltar. In a conclusion unlikely to be adopted as a slogan by the territory’s tourism authorities, Candler added: “We’re purely here because we couldn’t go anywhere else.”
A few flights of steep stone steps up the hill from Apes’ Den lies one of Gibraltar’s newer and more terrifying tourist attractions. Opened by the Star Wars actor Mark Hamill three years ago, the Skywalk sits 340 metres above sea level, its rocky ridges high enough to shred the cloudy fog and spin the heads of those with vertigo.
Jack Darby, from Staines, stood on the glass walkway with his friends Aaron Part and Jordan Irwin. The three, all in their 20s, had been lured by the ease of getting to Gibraltar. “Green light, bit of sun, and testing requirements that aren’t unnecessarily extra,” said Darby. “I’m sick of being home after 16 months of the pandemic – and this is somewhere new. But I’m amazed by how much there is to keep you entertained.”
Part was more succinct. “I came here for the sun and to get a break from work,” he said. “The high point is just being away from England.”
Gibraltar, which had around 11 million visitors in 2018 – and a tourist expenditure that year of £273.6m – has missed the planes, the cruise ships and the daytrippers from Spain during the Covid pandemic.
“We’ve had a very bad year, pretty much like everybody else,” the territory’s tourism minister, Vijay Daryanani, told the Observer. “We’ve had empty hotels, shops and restaurants so, hopefully, this is the start of better times.”
Daryanani points out that Gibraltar’s hotels are now full, and says the Rock is doing all it can to make the most of its treasured green-list status. While there are no figures as yet on how many Britons are holidaying there, “you can see a lot of movement in town and in our marinas and restaurants. People are booking with a lot of UK [phone] numbers, which is proof of a lot of people are coming from the UK.”
The minister also believes the pandemic – and the changes it has wrought on the travel market – could work in Gibraltar’s favour. While the numbers will need to be crunched, the evidence suggests the Rock is currently attracting a younger, family crowd in place of the older visitors and business travellers on which it has traditionally relied.
“I think we’re getting families because people realise that there’s a lot to do in Gibraltar – it’s not only about monkeys and the Rock,” said Daryanani. “I think we will see a different kind of tourist and I think there will be a turning point as people come to Gibraltar for the first time and realise that there’s so much to do.”
The relief is not confined to Gibraltar. The 10,000 or so Spanish workers who cross into the territory every day to work in hospitality and construction are also pleased to see the tourists return. Many of them live across the border in La Línea de la Concepción, which depends on Gibraltar economically and which struggles with high unemployment.
The loud and intense construction work at the foot of the Rock, close to Eastern Beach, is proof of the territory’s enduring commitment to tourism and development. Bit by bit, Gibraltar is moving away from JG Ballard’s elegantly snotty description of it as a place with a “vague air of a provincial England left out too long in the sun”. And yet it still beguiles those who love its idiosyncratic juxtapositions.
“It’s a home-from-home but with a bit of the Spanish lifestyle,” said Andrew Brazier as a late afternoon wind lashed a beach sparsely clumped with families under umbrellas and gaggles of pale-skinned lads.
Brazier had brought his family over from Kent for the latest in a series of visits since he fell for the charms of Gibraltar while on a trip to celebrate his 40th birthday three years ago.
“I think it’s a really underrated place: it’s got beaches and history,” he said. And besides, he added, the pandemic has made life both tougher and clearer: “You don’t know what’s going to happen, so you have to make the most of it.”