Spain’s tourism sector fears wave of cancellations by foreign visitors

Spread of the delta strain of the coronavirus could lead to renewed restrictions on international mobility just as the industry was hoping to begin its recovery. France has already recommended against travel to Spain

Tourists arriving at the port of Barcelona on June 26.
Tourists arriving at the port of Barcelona on June 26.Albert Garcia

Spain’s tourism sector is watching anxiously as coronavirus cases spike again across the country, leading to fears of mass summer cancellations among foreign visitors. The Financial Times on Wednesday ran an article headlined “Delta variant drives Spain’s Covid-19 rate to highest in mainland Europe,” and some regional governments have reintroduced restrictions while others are considering it.

The Spanish government is expecting around 17 million international arrivals this summer – just 45% of those who came in the summer of 2019 but three times more than in the summer of 2020. A record 83.5 million tourists visited Spain in 2019. By comparison, there were 3.2 million between January and May of this year, a drop of 26 million from the same period in 2019.

A steady decline in transmission and a good pace of vaccination had fueled hopes of a reasonably succesful summer season. But the current spread of the coronavirus among the younger, unvaccinated population is creating fears of new international travel restrictions that would lead to canceled bookings.

Spanish officials have noted that the spike in new cases is not leading to a significant rise in hospitalizations, and that Spain’s most vulnerable citizens are largely protected, with over 42% of the population now fully vaccinated. The mortality rate is also among the lowest in the European Union. But the tourism industry still fears the effects of international media coverage on political decisions.

The beach in Chipiona (Cádiz) on the first weekend after Spain lifted its state of alarm.
The beach in Chipiona (Cádiz) on the first weekend after Spain lifted its state of alarm. EL PAÍS

“It’s dramatic, it’s the worse thing that could happen to us. The image that’s being projected is of great concern. It seems only a matter of time before a return to restrictive measures,” said José Luis Zoreda, vice-president of Exceltur, an industry group representing 33 major travel companies.

It may already be happening. On Thursday morning, France’s secretary of state for European affairs, Clément Beaune, made the following recommendation to French nationals on the television network France 2: “To those of you who have not yet booked your vacations, avoid Spain and Portugal as destinations.”

The industry is now waiting to see whether the United Kingdom will maintain its plans to end coronavirus restrictions on July 19. On Thursday, the UK government was expected to provide new details about quarantine requirements for fully vaccinated travelers returning from certain countries. Mainland Spain is currently on the amber list, meaning that returning visitors must quarantine for 10 days, while the Balearic Islands are on the green list.

The Spanish tourism sector is also concerned about Germany, the other major source of visitors to the country. There are fears that Berlin will adopt a similar policy as it has with Portugal and introduce a quarantine for returning travelers.

If any of this happens, the travel industry will be left high and dry after 16 very slow months. “The delta variant represents a particular risk to economies that are more exposed to tourism,” said Axel Botte, a global strategist at Ostrum Asset Management.

To those of you who have not yet booked your vacations, avoid Spain and Portugal as destinations
Clément Beaune, French secretary of state for European affairs

After Spain lifted its state of alarm in early May, vacation bookings began to surge. On June 26 they equaled pre-pandemic levels, according to the specialized website SiteMinder. Although there have been no significant cancellations for now, bookings are slowing down. Sources at the Meliá hotel chain said that this change took place after a large outbreak among students vacationing on the island of Mallorca. “There are still bookings, but fewer than in the early days after the UK announced it was including the Balearics in its green list,” said this source.

Expectations also vary by regions. In Catalonia, uncontrolled coronavirus transmission has dampened the tourism industry’s summer plans. “We need to convey positive messages to the outside world,” said Santiago García-Nieto, president of the Confederation of Hospitality Businesses and Restaurateurs of Catalonia (ConfeCat).

Industry leaders already figure that the month of July is not going to be as good as expected, and are now focusing on saving August and September. They are also asking national authorities for greater diplomatic efforts to explain to the world that Spain is a safe destination.

English version by Susana Urra.

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