“I am very sorry. I made a mistake. It won’t happen again,” the king said yesterday, trying to placate a rare wave of public outrage against him.
Looking chastened and using crutches to walk, he spoke as he left a Madrid hospital where he had undergone surgery after breaking his hip in a fall during the hunting trip to Botswana.
The 74-year-old monarch has faced scathing criticism this week after he went on the expensive safari as both Spain and its citizens struggle in dire economic times.
The trip came to light when the king fell and had to be flown back to Spain on Friday.
A palace official yesterday denied accounts that the king flew to Africa without telling the government. The official said that on 2 April, in a routine weekly meeting with the prime minister, the king told him that the following Monday he would be in Botswana.
Justice minister Alberto Ruiz-Gallardon said on Tuesday that premier Mariano Rajoy always knew where the head of state was.
The palace official said the king made the trip as a guest of unnamed hosts – so no taxpayers’ money was spent.
Many Spaniards were dumbfounded that the king could take such an expensive jaunt – particularly to hunt elephants even though he is honorary president of the Spanish branch of the World Wildlife Fund – while everyday people brave a 23 per cent unemployment rate, a shrinking economy and mounting fears that the Spain will be the next eurozone country after Greece, Ireland and Portugal to need a bailout.
For many, the trip made the king’s recent comments about how he couldn’t sleep at night thinking about the unemployed ring hollow.
News of the safari caused an uproar so loud it eclipsed Spain’s economic crisis for a few days. Members of most political parties had urged the king to say he was sorry.
The palace official confirmed the apology was unprecedented for the Bourbon monarchy.
In early reaction, the ruling conservative Popular Party issued a terse statement saying it “shows its respect for a monarchy that is in tune with what the Spanish people expect and need from it”.
The royal family has been in the news a lot lately - and not for the best reasons.
The king’s son-in-law Inaki Urdangarin is a suspect in a corruption case, accused of using his position to embezzle several million euros in public contracts through a charitable foundation. Then, over Easter, the king’s 13-year-old grandson shot himself in the foot with a shotgun, even though by law in Spain you must be 14 to handle a gun.
Until now, the king had always been a highly respected figure in Spain and almost never came in for criticism from either politicians or the media.
The king rarely speaks out on current affairs in Spain. But with the royal family looking so bad because of the Urdangarin case, in his traditional Christmas address last year, he made a point of saying “everyone is equal in the eyes of the law”. He said he was worried because of what he called growing mistrust of “some of our institutions”.
Juan Carlos, groomed by the dictator Franco for his role as king, oversaw the transition to democracy and won respect from many Spaniards in 1981 when he condemned an attempted coup. He has remained very popular, though a poll in October trust in the royal family was declining.