Spain’s gradual reopening generates tourist sector scepticism

Abi Malins June 10, 2020
Photo by David Ramos/Getty Images

As many European countries prepare to re-open to international tourism from June 15, Spain is taking a markedly cautious approach. Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez has confirmed plans to welcome visitors only from July 1, following a pilot project reopening the Balearic Islands to German tourists from mid-June.

The country has been ravaged by the pandemic: some 27,136 confirmed deaths have occurred, combined with a harsh lockdown leading to a record 5.2 million Spaniards registering for unemployment benefits in April. Reopening tourism and hospitality is a vital step toward initiating socioeconomic recovery, yet many in the sector remain sceptical about the strategies proposed.

As a source at Credit Suisse in Madrid explains, international agreements on air bridges and travel corridors between Spain and its European feeder markets are an integral component to revitalising tourism, while maintaining control of coronavirus cases.

Cross-border collaboration is key, given the UK, Germany and France provide the majority of Spain’s annual visitors. Commenting on the Balearics pilot project set to commence next week, which plans to distribute some 6,000 German tourists between Mallorca, Ibiza and Menorca, German Minister for Foreign Affairs Heiko Maas reiterated the need to “jointly avoid the reactivation of tourism resulting in a second wave.”

Despite this clear priority, the UK and France have shown less willing to reopen channels with Spain. Following initial refusal to implement quarantine measures for international arrivals at the outbreak of the crisis, the UK is now requiring all visitors to quarantine for a period of 14 days from arrival.

Photo by David Ramos/Getty Images

The announcement met with indignation from the airline industry, prompting Anglo-Spanish company International Consolidated Airlines Group (IAG) to propose legal action against the UK quarantine. The move saw IAG’s shares jump some 8% last Friday, also gaining support from rival Ryanair. For its part, France has taken a more mitigated approach, maintaining a voluntary quarantine for visitors arriving from Spain by air first implemented on May 15.

Anglo-German travel company TUI, meanwhile, has pledged active participation in the Balearics pilot project. The company has, however, refused to fly visitors to the Canary Islands before the wider Spanish reopening planned for July 1, on the grounds of safety measures described as “insufficient” by Reyes Maroto, Spanish Minister of Industry, Trade and Tourism in a statement last Friday.

Creating even a limited corridor between Germany and Spain has already had a marked effect on TUI revenue: CEO Friedrich Joussen told Berlin-based La Vanguardia correspondents the company was seeing around “80% of normal bookings in this period,” whereas two weeks ago reservations were practically non-existent.

Joussen did, however, acknowledge Spain is likely to host just 50% of the German tourists it would usually expect for this time of year, down to some 1.8 million between July and September from the 3.6 million recorded by the National Statistics Institute (INE) for the same period in 2019.

Spanish hotel chain Meliá’s plans to open at least 50 hotels from mid-July has generated similar interest, garnering, according to COO André Gerondeau, more bookings than cancellations since the Spanish state of emergency was announced in March. Meliá’s asset-light model, in which it owns only a small percentage of the hotels it operates for a fee, has proven more resilient to the current climate than individual hotel establishments or traditional chains. 

But within the hospitality sector itself, lack of clear guidelines and concerns over patrons’ willingness to comply with ongoing distancing measures are generating anxiety. “Of course [reopening] is necessary, because the hospitality and tourism sector is in ruins right now,” says Inma Vallejo, joint owner of tapas bar La Chimenea in La Línea de la Concepción, “…as long as it’s with the necessary health guarantees.”

Photo by Daniel Perez Garcia-Santos/Getty Images

She is concerned that Spanish patrons, keen to return to some semblance of normal life and near-exhausted with drawn-out lockdown de-escalation, are becoming indifferent to the health protocols still in place.

Likewise, she feels there is little guarantee of compliance from certain tourist demographics seeking a somewhat intoxicated good time. Yet it will be her, rather than any problematic patrons, ultimately “risking a fine from a health inspector.”

Lack of clarification for hospitality businesses is generating “tremendous insecurity” in the sector, she adds. Owners otherwise poised to reopen are unsure what the lockdown phase changes actually mean for the daily operation of their businesses. Simultaneously, there is a lack of effective communication regarding the competent bodies to which they can turn for advice.

Ongoing lack of clarity from the government is, Inma feels, an insurmountable barrier to effective revival over the coming months. With Spanish tourism and hospitality brought to its knees, she says it is “politics, partisanship and populism” continuing to scupper a sector determined to make its comeback.

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Freelance journalist, content writer and translator based in Amsterdam.