CORONAVIRUS

As Italy prepares to open borders to tourists, Spain opts for caution

Sources from the Spanish government say the prime minister is not willing to risk a new spike in coronavirus infections by restarting international tourism prematurely

Workers prepare a beach in Mallorca for people with reduced mobility.
Workers prepare a beach in Mallorca for people with reduced mobility.CATI CLADERA / EFE

Since the beginning of the coronavirus crisis, Spain has followed Italy’s steps with a week of difference. The measures taken in each country to slow the outbreak, such as the closure of schools, the declaration of the state of alarm and the total shutdown of the economy, have been in sync – up until now.

While Italy has reactivated almost all business activity in the country and will open its borders to tourists on June 3, the Spanish government has decided on a more cautious route. Under Spain’s deescalation plan, travel within the country will not be allowed until at least the end of June. Health authorities have indicated that the summer holiday season will start later this year and be focused on domestic – not international – tourism. Indeed, Spain has not set a date to reopen its borders to tourists, and just recently introduced a 14-day quarantine for international travelers, which will be in place until at least June 7, when the current state of alarm is set to end.

The Spanish government has chosen not to follow Italy’s example because it believes the move is premature, according to sources from the executive. Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez has expressed this very concern to some of his aides. “Italy is deescalating too quickly. Hopefully it will work out for them, but they are risking a lot,” he reportedly told them.

There is enormous pressure from the tourism industry of both countries. But where the Italian government has decided to risk opening its borders to mitigate the economic fallout of the crisis, Spain believes the threat of a spike in new coronavirus cases is too high. Spain, in fact, has reported slightly better coronavirus figures over the past few days. On Monday, for example, there were 256 new cases in Spain and 451 in Italy, while daily deaths were 59 and 99 respectively, according to the World Health Organization’s (WHO) records. As of Thursday, the total number of victims in Spain stood at 27,999, compared to 32,007 in Italy. Spain has a smaller population than Italy, with 47 million people compared to 60 million.

The Italian prime minister, Giuseppe Conte, has prioritized the country’s economic recovery over health concerns against the recommendations of some government epidemiologists. The deescalation process in Italy has also been left in the hands of regional authorities. This is in stark contrast to Spain, where the central government controls where and when confinement restrictions are eased. This allows the government to ensure that only regions judged by health experts to be ready to move to the next phase are able to do so, but it has also led to a fierce battle with Madrid regional authorities, who have taken their fight to move to Phase 1 to the Supreme Court.

But sources from La Moncloa, the seat of government in Spain, say that it is better to suffer the economic effects of the lockdown a little longer than risk a spike in new cases that would lead to new confinement measures and completely destroy the tourism industry. “In Italy there is a lot of pressure from the tourism sector. Here as well, but we are opting for prudence. They are assuming a very high risk,” explains a member of the government. “In tourism, you are gambling with your reputation. We want to be considered a safe destination again. And to do that, there is nothing better than avoiding a step back that would destroy our image.”

Another member of the Spanish Cabinet agrees: “It does not make sense to make the gamble for just a few more weeks. We have our deescalation plan and we are going to maintain it [...] There will not be any movement between the provinces until all of them pass all the phases [...] No one would understand why a Spaniard is unable to visit their mother in Galicia while a German national can go to their house in Mallorca. That is not going to happen.”

According to government sources, Sánchez gets visibly annoyed when a member of the Cabinet mentions the pressure to accelerate the deescalation process. “We are all under pressure. We are here to resist it. The absolute priority is lowering the level of contagion,” he reportedly said at one meeting.

Pressure is not just coming from the tourism sector, but also from other European governments. Thousands of German, British, French and Belgian citizens own homes in Spain. But some of these countries, especially the United Kingdom, are still fighting against the coronavirus pandemic. If a resident from outside of Spain were to spark a new wave of coronavirus infections, the problem would fall to the Spanish government, explain government sources.

“We are defending our interests. If there is a problem in Mallorca or Alicante or Málaga or Madrid, it is not going to be solved by the German, French or British governments. It is going to be our problem. And the blow to Spain’s image could be permanent,” says a member of the Spanish government.

“It is not a question of closing the country under lock and key,” adds a minister. “No one wants that. We all want to reopen. But we have to protect the deescalation, and above all, ourselves as a destination. Let’s not forget that 80 million people visit us every year.”

The members of the government consulted by EL PAÍS did not deny that another reason to avoid reopening borders is the current explosive political mood. One wrong step would be fatal for the Sánchez administration, which has been facing increasingly heated attacks from the opposition and protest groups. All this has led the government to take one of the toughest positions on the deescalation process in Europe. It will soon be revealed who made the right call on the most difficult decision of the crisis: when to enter the new normality.

English version by Melissa Kitson.

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