TOURISM

Spain: closed to domestic tourism but open to Europeans

While regional borders remain largely sealed, 274,242 foreign travelers arrived in January thanks to different rules adopted by central and regional authorities

A traveler arriving in Madrid's Barajas Airport last summer has her temperature checked.
A traveler arriving in Madrid's Barajas Airport last summer has her temperature checked.Pablo Blazquez Dominguez / Getty

Spain’s tourism sector remains in an induced coma after nearly a year of record low activity. A surge in infections at the beginning of 2021 led to new mobility restrictions across the European continent, but in Spain this created a paradoxical situation: while travel across regional borders was largely prohibited, international visitors were still allowed into the country.

The contradiction can be explained by the fact that, under the second state of alarm, it is the country’s regional governments who are in charge of deciding their own coronavirus measures. This is in contrast with the March-to-June period last year, when the central government made all the key decisions under the emergency powers granted by the first state of alarm.

Business travel has particularly suffered from the coronavirus crisis. Most trade fairs have been cancelled, and those that have not are being held virtually

In the current legal framework, regional authorities may close their own borders to all but essential domestic travel. But they do not have the ability to deny entry to European travelers through international borders such as airports or ports, which are centrally managed. It is up to the government of Spain to make that decision, but so far it has not done so, with exceptions for a ban on non-essential travel from the United Kingdom and from non-EU countries.

The only condition that was introduced for passengers arriving by air or sea was a PCR test, although this was not required of people coming in by land. That is to say, nothing was stopping a German citizen from entering Spain through, for example, the city of Palma on the island of Mallorca. The only thing that has prevented more Europeans from coming to Spain is the fact that their countries of origin have significantly restricted outbound travel for leisure purposes.

January figures

This collection of rules, added to a poor epidemiological situation following the Christmas holidays, has led to an erratic start for the Spanish tourism industry. Despite the open borders, only 434,362 foreign travelers came to Spain in January, down 89.5% from the same month in 2020. The fall in spending was similarly dramatic: €452 million, a 90.5% drop from January 2020, according to data released on Tuesday by the National Statistics Institute (INE). And the Canary Islands felt it most keenly, as it watched its high season, winter, go up in smoke.

This comes on top of a historically bad 2020, which posted the worst arrival and spending figures in half a century. At this point, the tourism industry is hoping that the vaccination campaign will help save the summer season, by which time the government hopes to have immunized 70% of the population.

Business travel has particularly suffered from the coronavirus crisis. Most trade fairs have been cancelled, and those that have not are being held virtually. Business meetings have gone the same way. Even so, the drop in leisure travel has been so tremendous that the share of business trips is at its highest point ever as a percentage of total travel to Spain: 37% of trips in January were for professional purposes, and in December it was even higher, 41%. Those are the highest figures since 2015, when the INE began to break down the overall arrivals figure.

English version by Susana Urra.

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