The industry does not expect to reach pre-pandemic passenger volumes until 2023 or 2024 | MDB files

Spain needs to establish more links with long-haul travel destinations and tap into the burgeoning Asian market to help boost its flagging tourism sector, Iberia airline's chief executive and a government official said on Wednesday.

"Betting on China will be a game-changer," senior tourism ministry official Fernando Valdes told an event organised by Spain's ALA airlines association.

"It will add millions of tourists to the flow of international travellers," he said, adding that Madrid's Barajas airport could feasibly become an international hub connecting Asian as well as Latin American markets.

Echoing his sentiment, Iberia's Chief Executive Javier Sanchez-Prieto stressed the importance of positioning the company in Asian markets with higher purchasing power. "Some 2.4 billion people are going to join the upper middle class in Southeast Asia. We don't know how many of them we can transport, but it's enormous," he said.

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Hub airports in poorer, southern countries are losing out to their rivals in richer nations, which know better how to appeal to more lucrative customers, he added.

As global vaccination rates have risen and restrictions have eased, international travel has begun to stage a modest recovery but the industry does not expect to reach pre-pandemic passenger volumes until 2023 or 2024.

Within Europe, Britain's decision to delay its reopening to foreign tourism and a lack of safe travel corridors with Spain's main markets are not positive, Sanchez-Prieto said.

Should Britons continue to be absent from Spain's sea-and-sun destinations, France would continue to be Spain's new primary market this summer, tourism official Valdes noted.