UK’s new quarantine rule spells disaster for Spanish travel industry

The tour operator TUI has canceled all flights from Britain to mainland Spain until August 9

Passengers in Palma de Mallorca airport in the Balearic Islands line up for a flight to the UK on Sunday.
Passengers in Palma de Mallorca airport in the Balearic Islands line up for a flight to the UK on Sunday.Francisco Ubilla

Britain’s sudden decision to require travelers from Spain to self-isolate for 14 days, effective since Sunday, represents the final blow for the struggling Spanish tourism industry.

Shortly after the UK announced its decision to remove Spain from its travel corridors exemption list due to a surge in coronavirus cases, Britain and Ireland’s biggest tour operator, TUI, canceled all flights from the UK to mainland Spain until August 9 – although the company confirmed that flights to the Balearic and Canary Islands would resume on Monday.

The Spanish tourism industry was already dealing with thousands of cancellations after emerging from a prolonged lockdown during which the number of international visitors was close to zero. Hotel industry leaders from Spain are now offering free coronavirus tests to foreign tourists leaving the country so they will not have to self-isolate back home. The industry is also asking European authorities for “urgent” measures including testing in the countries of origin and destination, to ensure the safety of visitors but also of industry workers and local residents.

Right now it is safer to be in the Canaries than it is to be in Britain, and we are fighting to get the islands off the list
Jorge Marichal, president of the Santa Cruz de Tenerife hotel and accommodation association CEHAT

While August is traditionally the busiest month of the year for the sector, business has been affected by a new jump in coronavirus numbers. The rate of cases per 100,000 people has risen to 39.4, according to the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control (ECDC), representing the fifth highest incidence in Europe.

Although Spain’s Foreign Minister Arancha González Laya on Sunday stated that “Spain is a safe country,” countries have started to react. Besides the UK’s decision to reintroduce quarantine requirements, Belgium has recommended not traveling to six Spanish regions and banned travel to the provinces of Huesca and Lleida.

Meanwhile, France is urging its citizens to avoid travel to Catalonia, which is normally the top destination for French tourists in Spain. Norway has also introduced a 10-day quarantine for all travelers from Spain, and Germany’s Foreign Ministry is advising against travel to Catalonia, Aragón, Navarre and the Balearic Islands.

Over 18 million tourists visited Spain in 2019, and each one of them spent an average €995, for a total of €17.98 billion. Of these, British tourists accounted for 56.5 million overnight stays. In July of last year there were 2.16 million British visitors, according to the National Statistics Institute (INE). By comparison, only an estimated 1.5 million British tourists are visiting Spain these days.

The British tourism industry is also warning about the effects of the UK government’s decision to reintroduce quarantine requirements. The Association of British Travel Agents (ABTA) is asking British officials to exclude from this list the Balearic Islands, the Canary Islands and the Costa del Sol, all of which are popular destinations for British travelers. These areas, they note, have lower coronavirus incidence than the UK.

The British media has been reflecting the confusion and helplessness felt by UK holidaymakers caught by surprise by the government’s sudden announcement to take Spain off its travel corridor list. “Thousands or tens of thousands of Britons would not have taken their flights if the decision had been announced before Friday,” said Rory Boland, director of consumer rights magazine Which?

The decision to reimpose quarantine was so abrupt that it even caught one member of the British government, Transport Secretary Grant Shapps, on a holiday in Spain. Shapps and his family, who flew to Spain on Saturday morning, before news of the decision emerged, will have to self-isolate upon their return.

The UK’s quarantine requirement on travelers from Spain will not affect citizens of Gibraltar, a British overseas territory located on the southern tip of the Iberian peninsula, as long as citizens have not been on Spanish territory in the last two weeks, the Gibraltarian government said in a statement on Monday.

Regional authorities in the Balearic Islands, the Canary Islands, Valencia and Andalusia have asked to be excluded from the UK’s quarantine requirement

EasyJet and British Airways said they are not cancelling their Spanish flights and were very critical of the UK government’s action. The Association of Airport Operators (AOA) said the move will further damage the fragile recovery of the airline sector.

Authorities in the Balearic Islands, which welcomed 3.7 million British visitors last year, said they were “very concerned” about the quarantine decision, and already working to exclude their region from the list. The rate of coronavirus cases per 100,000 people is eight, compared with 14.1 in Britain and 39.4 in Spain as a whole.

In the Canary Islands, the tourism sector described the UK action as “the final blow” for a destination that was already expecting a 66% drop in arrivals and losses of €10 billion compared with 2019, according to the regional government. British travelers account for a third of all tourists to the Canaries, and in the case of Tenerife and Lanzarote, this figure rises to 40%.

“It’s really bad news, because the situation in no way justifies a decision of this type,” said Jorge Marichal, president of the Santa Cruz de Tenerife hotel and accommodation association CEHAT. “Right now it is safer to be in the Canaries than it is to be in Britain, and we are fighting to get the islands off the list.”

In Málaga, on Spain’s Costa del Sol, the most often heard word to describe the new reality is “disaster.” British tourism was expected to drive a partial recovery during what is left of the summer season, but the weekend announcement has triggered a flood of cancellations, said industry sources. In a radio interview on Monday, the deputy premier of Andalusia, Juan Marín, said the region has asked for the region to be exempted from the new quarantine measures.

And in the Valencia region, another popular destination for British tourists, the regional premier Ximo Puig has asked for the area to also be excluded from the UK’s quarantine requirement. In the city of Benidorm, where British nationals account for 40% of tourism, everything was ready for them. A source at Hosbec, an industry association from Valencia, said the UK’s decision “pours cold water” over the sector’s recovery prospects.

In Catalonia, tourism chief Àngels Chacón called the French government’s advice not to travel to the region “a tough blow” for the sector. In August 2019, there were 709,000 French visitors in Catalonia, representing 30% of all visitors. British tourists account for 11.3%.

With reporting by Lucía Bohórquez (Palma), Guillermo S. Vega (Las Palmas de Gran Canaria), Nacho Sánchez (Málaga), Patricia Tubella (London), Dani Cordero (Barcelona) and Enrique Müller (Berlín).

English version by Susana Urra.

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