BARCELONA, Spain — Walking the docks and chatting with locals at the Barcelona International Boat Show, an American boat show veteran can see and hear many of the same challenges and successes that builders and dealers find stateside, but on a much smaller scale.
Like most of the rest of the world, Spain does not have a deeply ingrained recreational boating culture. The ancient nation with extensive coastlines on the Atlantic Ocean and Mediterranean Sea and a population of 47 million, most of it along the coast, counts a maritime heritage that is profoundly commercial.
Still, the 9-year-old National Association of Nautical Companies, or ANEN, Spain's version of the National Marine Manufacturers Association in the United States, is on a mission to change the culture.
"What we are trying to do in Spain is promote boating as an affordable family activity," said Jose Luis Fayos, technical and export manager for ANEN. "There's a perception here that boating is a rich man's hobby."
Fayos said ANEN has a valued partnership with the NMMA, which spearheaded the first U.S. pavilion at the show this year. Mirroring the NMMA's Welcome to the Water campaign, Spain's boating guide boasts the same invitation in Spanish: "Bienvenidos al aqua."
Organizers of the Barcelona show, now in its 53rd year, moved the venue from a dry inland location three years ago to the prime marina area along the Mediterranean coast. Now most of the boats, from midsize vessels to megayachts, are in the water.
There's a section at the show that is pulled from the NMMA playbook, with an inflatable surfing simulator and a chance to test paddle boards and paddle boats. A conference on Thursday featured Spanish sailing celebrities such as two-time Olympic gold medal winner Teresa Zabell speaking about the need to get young people involved in the boating lifestyle.
Twenty years ago the Spanish sailing industry was fairly healthy; now only one Spanish manufacturer, Belliure, builds sailboats. SOLÉ is the only Spanish marine engine manufacturer left.
Yet Fayos said there's renewed optimism in the Spanish marine market, namely because manufacturers, vendors and distributors are reporting that 2014 is shaping up to be a much better year than 2013, somewhat mirroring the overall Spanish economy.
"And next year's economic forecast is also a positive one," he said.
If native boatbuilders are challenged, there are such success stories as the Rodman Group, a production powerboat builder that has showcased at the South Florida shows, and Belliure, a 61-year-old semicustom trawler yacht builder that caters to the high-end market. Across the harbor from the show sits MB92, the largest refit shipyard in Europe.
"Refits are very big in this region, as many of the larger yachts summer in the Med and winter in the Caribbean," Fayos said.
Then there are the distributors and international dealers. Regulator Marine came to the Barcelona show specifically to partner with a distributor to spread its brand across Spain.
Meanwhile, Nautica Antonio De La Pena in Malaga, in southern Spain, is counting 25 consecutive years representing the Rinker boat brand.
"I believe we are the oldest importer for Rinker in the world," said Rafa de la Pena of Nautica Antonio De La Pena. "Our customers like the finish, the upholstery, all the standard accessories and most of the design. You see the boat and you say, 'This is American.' "
During the boom years, de la Pena said his firm was importing 80 to 90 Rinkers. Now the number is only 10 to 15, "but this year was a good season for selling Rinkers," he said.