Spanish tourism sector cheers return of British visitors, but warns recovery rests on UK lifting restrictions

Popular tourist destinations such as the Costa del Sol and the Canary Islands have celebrated the end of travel rules for their largest market, but are calling for Spain to be put on the United Kingdom’s “green list”

British tourists at César Manrique-Lanzarote airport in this file photo from 2020.
British tourists at César Manrique-Lanzarote airport in this file photo from 2020.Javier Fuentes Figueroa (EFE)
Madrid / Palma / Málaga / Valencia / Las Palmas de Gran Canaria -

As of Monday, travelers from the United Kingdom are no longer subject to the coronavirus restrictions for visitors to Spain from outside the European Union. This means that British tourists can enter the country without having to present a negative PCR test. These restrictions were also waived for visitors from Japan, and as of June 7 travelers from around the world who have the full protection offered by a Covid-19 vaccine will also be able to visit without any restrictions. The announcement, made on Friday by Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez at the Fitur tourism fair, has been welcomed by Spain’s main tourist destinations, which are eager to recover from the devastating impact of the coronavirus crisis.

But it’s not all good news. Authorities in England have placed Spain on its “amber list” of countries, with similar classifications and restrictions for Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland. This means in practice that travelers from the UK can come to Spain, but must quarantine for at least 10 days on their return and take two home coronavirus tests, which must come back negative before quarantine can end. What’s more, there are stricter measures still in place in Spain than in the UK, meaning that tourists visiting the country will have to wear face masks while outdoors as well as in indoor public spaces such as supermarkets. There are some exceptions, such as when practicing sport and on the beach when social distancing can be observed.

On Monday, UK Business Minister Anne-Marie Trevelyan also urged British citizens not to visit destinations on the amber list unless it is strictly necessary to do so. “Please don’t go unless there is an urgent family reason and so on,” she told Sky News. She later told Times Radio: “The reality is, at the moment, amber countries [such as Spain] are still not meeting the criteria for our scientists to say that they should be green. So the recommendation remains don’t go unless you have to and remember that, if you do go, you will have to quarantine for 10 days and that will be monitored.”

But Spain’s secretary of state for tourism, Fernando Valdés, is confident that Spain will be added to the coronavirus “green list” of destinations given transmission rates in the country are falling and the Covid-19 vaccination drive is advancing at a good speed.

The next review of the UK’s traffic light system will take place on June 7. A lot is riding on this decision as the UK is the main source country of tourists to Spain. In 2019, 18 million UK nationals visited the country, accounting for 21.6% of all arrivals. EL PAÍS spoke to experts in some of the most popular Spanish tourist destinations about what the travel changes mean for the industry.

The seaside promenade in Torremolinos, Málaga, after the end of the state of alarm.
The seaside promenade in Torremolinos, Málaga, after the end of the state of alarm.ALVARO CABRERA (EFE)

Costa del Sol: “This will allow us to recover employment soon”

After being closed for months, half of all hotels in Costa del Sol in the southern region of Andalusia have reopened ahead of the peak summer season. Since the state of alarm ended on May 9, and with it, restrictions on inter-regional travel, hotel reservations in the popular tourist destination have skyrocketed. Last weekend, the average occupancy rate was at 40%, but in some hotels, it was as high as 100%.

The hospitality industry is also starting to bounce back. Nearly 90% of beach bars, known in Spain as chiringuitos, were closed during the state of alarm, but now most have reopened due to the rise in tourists from Andalusia and the rest of Spain. With more international visitors set to arrive, “this will allow us to recover employment soon,” says Manuel Villafaina, the president of the Beach Business Association, which represents more than 400 chiringuitos.

But the tourism industry in Costa del Sol is heavily dependent on tourists from the UK, who represented one-third of all arrivals in Málaga airport before the pandemic. In 2020, Málaga province, which is home to the Costa del Sol coastal strip, reported a drop of 9.3 million tourists – 2.2 million of them from the UK – and €10 billion in losses from tourist spending.

The sector has welcomed the news that Spain has lifted restrictions on British travelers, but says it is important for the UK government to place the country on its coronavirus “green list” of destinations.

“We have opened the door, but now we need the support of the British government so that citizens can come [to Spain] without restrictions,” says Margarita del Cid, the head of the tourism department in Costa del Sol.

Javier Frutos, the head of the Málaga Hotel Association, agrees: “It is absolutely essential to get the green light on the British traffic light system as soon as possible.”

Half of all hotels in Costa del Sol have reopened, but the situation is still far from what it was before the pandemic. Indeed, many establishments have decided to delay reopening such as Alay Hotel in Benalmádena. “Until the British government eliminates the mandatory quarantine rule, Britons are going to prefer Portugal or another destination [on the green list] over Costa del Sol,” says Álvaro Reyes, the head of marketing at Alay Hotel.

José Carlos Martín, the tourism chief in Mijas, says the arrival of vaccinated travelers is also important. Mijas, a town of 82,742 inhabitants in Málaga, receives a large number of tourists from Asian countries such as Japan and South Korea. But, according to Carlos Martín, travel groups have warned that in these countries “the vaccination drive is much slower [than in Spain], which could become a problem here,” he says. “We have done our part, until the rest of the countries do their bit, the recovery will be slow.”

Málaga is currently the only province in Andalusia that is on the level 1 risk level, which means while there are some coronavirus restrictions, it is one step away from a complete return to normality.

Two Basque tourists in front of the Sagrada Familia basilica in Barcelona on May 17.
Two Basque tourists in front of the Sagrada Familia basilica in Barcelona on May 17. Carles Ribas

Barcelona: “We are not interested in how many tourists come, but rather what kind of tourist comes”

At the end of April, Barcelona launched a campaign to win back US tourists to the Catalan capital in response to news from the European Commission that vaccinated visitors from the US would be allowed into the EU. Before the pandemic, Barcelona received more American travelers than from any other country, only outstripped by domestic tourists.

The city’s tourism board, Turismo de Barcelona, has also set its sights on visitors from France, the UK and Russia. At the beginning of April, a tourism commission was sent to Moscow and St Petersburg in a bid to attract visitors to the Catalan city, which led to a 10% spike in Russian tourists. “In Barcelona, we are not interested in how many tourists come, but rather in what kind of tourist comes,” Marian Muro, the head of Turismo de Barcelona, said at the time.

But British visitors are also key to Barcelona’s tourism industry. In 2019, 763,627 Britons stayed in a hotel in the city, according to a report on tourism activity in the Catalan capital. This is the third-highest number after tourists from Spain (1,612,487) and the US (1,103,996). Hotel stays from UK visitors represented 8% of the total, a figure that exceeded that of France and Italy.

Benidorm beach in a file photo from June 2020.
Benidorm beach in a file photo from June 2020. Mònica Torres

Valencia: “They want to come, they haven’t been allowed in pubs and they are fed up with the rain”

Valencia on the Mediterranean coast will be one of the destinations that will most quickly see the positive effects of the decision to lift travel restrictions on British tourists, says Nuria Montes, the secretary general of the Benidorm Hotel Association (Hosbec). Alicante province in the eastern region is home to the highest number of Britons in Spain, with 70,000 UK residents. What’s more, the British market makes up one-third of all international tourists to Valencia. According to figures from the tourism sector, 89% of visitors from the UK in Valencia travel to Alicante, and of this number, half spend their vacation in Benidorm. “In a normal year, three million Britons arrive at the Alicante-Elche airport,” says Montes.

In Benidorm, hotel occupancy is at 35%, but this is expected to rise to 50%, says Montes. According to Montes, if the UK government lifts the travel restrictions on Spain, occupancy could return to pre-pandemic levels in June. “If the British and European markets work well, we are going to get to summer with almost everything open,” she says.

Ximo Puig, the premier of Valencia, argues the region’s low incidence rate makes it “the safest destination in Europe.”

Journalist Michelle Baker says Britons have also welcomed the decision to lift travel restrictions. “They want to come back,” she explains. “They are fed up with the weather, that they haven’t been able to go inside a pub until a week ago and no one wants to sit outdoors in the rain.” According to Baker, Benidorm “needs the purchasing power” of Britons, who have been saving money to go on a vacation for 18 months. She, however, believes UK visitors should not be exempt from all restrictions. “We should request a PCR from those who come because the figures of the Indian strain [of the coronavirus] are increasing alarmingly in the United Kingdom,” she explains.

Tourists at a sidewalk café in Palma de Mallorca.
Tourists at a sidewalk café in Palma de Mallorca.Reuters

Balearic Islands: “Lifting the restriction was a much-needed measure”

The Balearic Islands rely heavily on tourists from Britain. Before the pandemic in 2019, the archipelago received more than 3.6 million visitors from the UK, a number that fell to just 150,843 in 2020 as a result of the coronavirus crisis.

While the tourism industry is pleased that travel restrictions on Britons have been lifted, it is anxious for Spain to be put on the UK’s green list of destinations. “It is an important country for the archipelago,” says María José Aguillço, the vice president of the Balearic Island Hotel Association. “Lifting this restriction was a much-needed measure to reactivate the British market and will be more so, if the Balearic Islands is placed on the green list on June 7, which we trust it will.”

Spain is hoping that the country or at least specific regions, such as the Balearic Islands, will be placed on the UK’s green list due to the recent fall in coronavirus cases.

The tourism industry in the Balearic Islands has a long way to go before it is back to normal. Currently, only 30% of hotels in the region are open, compared to 90% before the pandemic.

Canary Islands: “Middle-class tourists come here, and the cost of tests for a normal family is financially prohibitive”

The hotel industry in the Canary Islands is pleased that British travelers are no longer subject to restrictions, but warns that restrictions in the UK are still a big hurdle. Since Spain is on the amber list, UK tourists who visit the archipelago must take a series of PCR tests upon their return, which is very costly.

“The news is only half-good as long as the United Kingdom continues to consider Spain an unsafe destination, meaning travelers have to take two PCR tests and quarantine when they [return home],” says José María Mañaricúa, the president of Las Palmas Hospitality and Tourism Federation. “Middle-class tourists come to the Canaries and the cost of these tests for a normal family can be as much as £700 or £800 [€813 to €926], which is financially prohibitive.”

The United Kingdom is the main source country of tourists to the Canary Islands, accounting for 37% of all visitors to the island In 2019.

With reporting by Hugo Guitiérrez, Lucía Bohórquez, Nacho Sánchez, Rafa Burgos, Lucía Bohórquez, Guillermo Vega and Alfonso Congostrina.

English version by Melissa Kitson.

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