Spain reports 6-percent rise to highest ever number of tourist arrivals

A record number of tourists visited Spain last year, with more heading to destinations away from beaches, including Madrid, the government said Friday.

More than 55.5 million people came to the country in 2005, a 6-percent increase from the number of visitors in 2004 and the largest increase in six years, the Ministry of Tourism and Commerce said in a statement.

Only France hosted more tourists, though in terms of money made from tourism the United States led the world with Spain second, the ministry said, citing statistics from other governments and the Spanish border control agency.

Catalonia _ the prosperous, partly mountainous northeastern coastal region whose capital is Barcelona _ was Spain's top destination, with close to 14 million visitors, followed by the Balearic islands in the Mediterranean, the Canary Islands in the Atlantic and Andalusia in the south, the report said.

Every region in Spain saw a rise in tourism, with the capital witnessing a 9.3-percent rise in visitors to just over 3 million. By nationality, Britain sent the most tourists to Spain _ over 16 million _ followed by Germany, with just under 10 million, and France under 9 million.

Though tourists numbers have been rising since 1998, the most marked rise comes from arrivals on low-cost airlines, the ministry said. More people also were visiting without package tours, with 63 percent staying in hotels and the rest seeking alternative accommodation, it said, AP reported.

V.A.