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Last Updated: Tuesday, 22 August 2006, 22:51 GMT 23:51 UK
Couples who wed in Britain's Med
By Simon Atkinson
Business reporter, BBC News, Gibraltar

A couple after their wedding in Gibraltar
Rock solid love - but this shot requires a trip into Spain
In Joseph Luis Mascarenhas's photography shop on Gibraltar's Main Street a fiver will buy you a snap of the territory's most famous wedding couple.

The tasteful shot of John Lennon and Yoko Ono posing on the airport runway in front of the rock in March 1969 is not a bad souvenir alongside your duty free Marlboro Lights and stuffed-toy Barbary ape.

For another 5 you can get a copy of their marriage certificate as well.

But each year hundreds of overseas visitors to Gibraltar are going a step further and tying the knot there themselves.

Splashing out

Weddings have become big business in Gibraltar with the tourist board targeting romantics looking to get hitched as a "niche market" in the same way they do birdwatchers and scuba divers.

They are an alternative to the day-trippers and cruise ship passengers who are the lifeblood of tourism in Gibraltar.

It's appealing because it's on British soil and everything is in English
Peter Canessa
Chief executive
Gibraltar Tourist Board

And the rationale is simple: if couples come here to get married they and their guests will spend cash staying in hotels, eating in restaurants, drinking in bars and splashing out in shops.

"There is even an element of future planning," says head of the Gibraltar Tourist Board Peter Canessa.

"If you get married here then at some point in your life - maybe when you have a couple of kids - you will want to come back."

Last year 641 of the 822 weddings in Gibraltar involved two "outsiders" - the majority being Brits coming from the UK or their homes in Spain.

Most ceremonies take place in the registry office or hotels, but if a cable car company gets its way, and its licence, it may soon be possible to get married on the Rock of Gibraltar itself - perhaps the world's most recognisable lump of Jurassic limestone.

Demands

Besides the sunshine, the big attraction is the Special Governor's Licence, which means you only have to be in Gibraltar for 24 hours before a marriage can take place.

John Lennon and Yoko Ono
Finally made the plane into Paris, honeymooning down by the Seine,
Peter Brown called to say you can make it okay,
You can get married in Gibraltar, near Spain.

'The Ballad of John and Yoko'
by John Lennon (1969)

The provision, a hangover from the territory's days as a garrison town when weddings needed to be conducted quickly, gives it the potential for spur-of-the moment nuptials - to become a Gretna Green in the sun.

But while a few elope here, most plan ahead - not least because everything is booked up months in advance.

According to staff, though, it is not uncommon for a couple due to wed to simply not turn up, and if there is a last minute availability they will do "everything they can" so you can say "I do".

'Taken off'

The demand to marry in Gibraltar is such that the government is now advertising for six "freelance" registrars who can conduct the services.

"For the UK market, it's appealing because it's on British soil and everything is in English," Mr Canessa says.

"People are familiar with the legal terms because the Gibraltarian law is based on UK law.

"And because it's two and a half hours from England, it does not cost the earth. It has really taken off, and that's why we are specifically advertising it."

We need to strike a balance between marriages being conducted freely but without it becoming a Las Vegas style scenario
George Flower
Gibraltar's registrar

Inside the tiny office of Gibraltar's civil registry - responsible for passports and identity cards as well as births, deaths and marriages, registrar George Flower sounds like a man trying to keep everyone happy.

While understanding the argument for tourism, he is adamant weddings will "not" become an industry.

"It's not a case of come and marry in Gibraltar - the more the merrier because the reality is we are a small operation," he says.

"There's room for improvement and expansion but there are realistic constraints.

Tina & Chris Jones at their wedding in Gibraltar
Tina and Chris Jones married in Gibraltar in August this year...

"We need to strike a balance between marriages being conducted freely but without it becoming a Las Vegas style scenario."

He adds: "The tourist board and local hotels have advertised the product (of marriage) if you want to call it that but we must keep the seriousness of it.

"We can't possibly, just simply for the benefit of the tourist industry and to make money, put in jeopardy the credibility and validity of Gibraltar marriages.

"After all we are first and foremost here for Gibraltar residents."

Real benefit?

And there is some anecdotal evidence that not all weddings are big money-spinners for the local economy.

"We marry people from all over the world here, but the majority are Brits who spend a couple of weeks on the Costa Del Sol and who, during that period come here and get married, combining the marriage and honeymoon," Mr Flower says.

"In those cases they don't actually bring much benefit to Gibraltar. They might stop for a drink in the pub but then they will go back to Spain to celebrate."

Tina & Chris Jones at their wedding in Gibraltar
...insert your own 'engaged' joke here.

Another ongoing concern is ensuring that those marrying are able to do so legally and that these marriages are genuine, rather than fraudulent shams designed simply to help someone get EU residency.

Because most couples only arrive in Gibraltar a couple of days before the ceremony, they are urged to send documents in advance.

"There's an element of duty towards the UK and other European countries. We can't have a situation where Gibraltar is being used to circumvent immigration rules," Mr Flower says.

'Beautiful'

An estimated 60% of those marrying here are older couples who are each onto their second or third wedding and want limited fuss away from all but closest family and friends.

"It has become very popular and you do get all sorts of people," says Marilyn Richardson of the Caleta Hotel, one of those licensed to host weddings.

It tempts guests with promises of Mediterranean views, sumptuous menus and a spurious tale on its website that Eastenders' Grant and Tiffany eloped here (we are informed it was, in fact, Paris).

"One girl who married recently was dressed in pink, like a Cinderella. It wasn't everyone's cup of tea, mind you, but I thought she looked absolutely beautiful."

Back in his shop, Mr Mascarenhas prepares another album from a recent ceremony - but questions whether Gibraltar is truly able to host many more weddings.

"I went to take photos in the garden of the registry office a little while ago and do you know what they had left in the middle of the grass?" he says, disbelievingly.

"A toilet! Incredible! You don't believe me? I took a picture of it."


SEE ALSO
Regions and territories: Gibraltar
14 Aug 06 |  Country profiles
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16 Aug 06 |  Business
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