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In early-21st-century Spain, tourism continues to dominate the economy. Spain's vibrancy and up-and-coming changes are expected to propel it into position as a major destination alongside such front-runners as France, the United States, and Italy, even though those countries are not expected to attract the number of visitors they did during the years immediately following the millennium.

Increasingly, North Americans are becoming part of the changing landscape. While many European visitors head for Spain's beach resorts, Americans occupy the number-one positions in visits to three top Spanish cities: Madrid, Barcelona, and Seville.

No longer interested in the "lager lout" image its coastal resorts earned in the 1970s and 1980s by hosting so many cheap package tours from Britain, Spain has reached out to more upscale visitors. Bargain Spain of the $5-a-day variety is now a distant memory, as prices have skyrocketed. The government is trying to lure visitors away from the overcrowded coasts (especially Majorca, the Costa del Sol, and the Costa Brava) and steer them to the country's less traveled but more historic destinations. Government paradores and other improved tourist facilities, better restaurants, and spruced-up attractions have sent the message.

In 1999, Spain joined other European countries in adopting the euro as its national currency. Citizens began using the new coins and bank notes at the beginning of 2002. The peseta, which had been the Spanish monetary unit since 1868, disappeared completely on March 1, 2002.

Although unemployment, which remains high, continues to plague the government, progress has been made. The country's debt is some 70% of the gross domestic product. Inflation is about 3.5%, an all-time low in the post-Franco era. Consumer spending remains cautious, however, because most of the new jobs being created are on short-term contracts.

Spain continues to change as it moves deeper into the 21st century. A drug culture and escalating crime -- things virtually unheard of in Franco's day -- are unfortunate signs of Spain's entry into the modern world. The most remarkable advance has been in the legal status of women, who now have access to contraception, abortion, and divorce. Sights once unimaginable now take place: an annual lesbian "kiss-in" at Madrid's Puerta del Sol, and women officiating as governors of men's prisons. Surprisingly, for a Catholic country, the birthrate continues to remain one of the lowest in the developed world, and the population is aging.

Spain's monarchy seems to be working. In 1975, when the king assumed the throne after Franco's death, he was called "Juan Carlos the Brief," implying that his reign would be short. But almost overnight he distanced himself from Franco's dark legacy and became a hardworking and serious sovereign. He staved off a coup attempt in 1981, and he and the other Spanish royals remain popular. Juan Carlos even makes do on a meager $7 million salary -- less than one-tenth of what England's Queen Elizabeth II is reputed to earn in a year.

The author John Hooper, in an updated version of his 1986 bestseller, The New Spaniards, remains optimistic about Spain's future, in spite of its economic problems. He suggests that Spaniards not forget that "to be true to themselves they may need to be different from others." Hooper believes that the new Spain will have arrived at adulthood "not on the day it ceases to be different from the rest of Europe, but on the day that it acknowledges that it is." Hooper was referring to the exotic, romantic, and varied faces of Spain that set it apart from other nations of Europe, ranging from flamenco to bullfighting and from Moorish architecture to pagan ceremonies. Nowhere -- not even in Italy -- are the festival and traditional, flamboyant dress more a part of annual life than in Spain, where religious processions are full of intense passion.

Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.