The streets and beaches of Benidorm are coming back to life after the devastation of the coronavirus pandemic. The presence of tourists from the United Kingdom is a good way to measure how well the city – located in the Spanish province of Alicante in the Valencia region – is recovering from the health crisis. Visitors from the UK have returned, but not yet in the numbers that serve to explain why so many restaurants have signs solely in English and why it is easier to see the English team Arsenal play a soccer match on a big screen than catch a glimpse of Spanish team Valencia CF. That said, there is a definite British mood in the air – and not just because it is raining intermittently on Tuesday afternoon. At the time of the traditional the Spanish siesta, many of the pubs, restaurants and karaoke bars are filled with people.
This is especially true of the venues in Benidorm that count on a roof but are otherwise open to the adjacent street or the beach. In one such venue, looking out onto Benidorm Island, there is live music, with a performer singing 1980s hits from Simple Minds and Rod Stewart. The patrons drink calmly while watching, some humming along. Most are not wearing a face mask. Most patrons don’t seem to be aware that wearing a face mask is still mandatory when not eating or drinking in these half-indoor, half-outdoor spaces.
Meanwhile, a Scottish family is enjoying some beers on Gerona street, one of the main hotspots for UK visitors to Benidorm. Two hours later, a group of Scottish men, made up of all ages, waves to the photographer of this newspaper from another pub. The bars with names such as The Crown, The Red Lion, Rocky’s Pub, Yorkshire Pride and White Star dot one of the streets parallel to Benidorm beach.
UK nationals used to represent 45% of all foreign visitors to Benidorm, a city with the most skyscrapers per capita in the world, according to its slogan. Now that percentage is around 24%, say municipal sources. But it is growing. Ferran, who manages a bar in the city, says that the number of British tourists has risen considerably since the end of September. His establishment was closed for 18 months due to the pandemic, although he did receive some aid from the local and regional government. “In this city, there is a lot of safety, of all different kinds, and the coronavirus [cases] have not risen as much as they are saying. If the floating population is counted, the incidence would be a lot lower,” he says.
Ferran is referring to news on Monday that the coronavirus incidence rate in Benidorm had risen to 286 cases per 100,000 inhabitants, compared to the average in Spain of 46 and 49 in the Valencia region as a whole, according to data from the Valencia health department. In the United Kingdom, coronavirus infections have recently shot up once more and the situation is of great concern to health experts. The 14-day incidence in the UK is currently 928.22 per 100,000 inhabitants, according to data released on Sunday. There is no legal obligation in England to wear masks in any situation, although they are still necessary inside stores and some other indoor settings in Northern Ireland, Wales and Scotland.
Of the latest cases detected in Benidorm, 53% were among the foreign population, according to the Spanish Health Ministry. But the hotel association Hosbec and Benidorm city council, which is run by the conservative Popular Party (PP), say it should be taken into account that the city has a much larger population than the official figures suggest. Around 180,000 people are estimated to live in Benidorm, compared to the 70,450 according to 2020 figures from the National Statistics Institute (INE). The city council argues that if coronavirus data were examined according to the real population levels, the incidence rate would be similar to that of other municipalities.
What’s more, the high transmission rates in Benidorm have not led to a corresponding rise in hospitalizations for Covid-19. According to official data, on Tuesday there were 11 Covid-19 patients in Marina Baixa hospital, compared to 12 last week and seven two weeks ago.
“The English don’t put on face masks inside. You have to remind them to if they are not eating or drinking,” says Ferran. Ricky, a Scottish soldier from Stirling, is wearing his mask on his elbow. He is drinking a beer with his wife. “While I’m drinking I’m not going to put it on, of course. But if I go to the bathroom, I do. In Scotland, we do have to wear it in some places,” he says. When asked why he chose to visit Benidorm, he replies: “Because everything is easy here. The two-hour flight, the weather, the atmosphere…” Sitting next to him is Dot, a retiree from England, who says that face masks are not mandatory in her home town of Burton-on-Trent, in Staffordshire. “But I also put it on if I’m going to the bathroom,” she says.
“We always wear a mask and we put it on when we go indoors,” adds Melanie, who is visiting Benidorm with her husband Robert and two children. They have traveled from Birmingham to see family living in Torrevieja, another city in Alicante province. Robert says he is fully vaccinated and is not particularly concerned about the coronavirus: the necessary precautions have to be taken, but one has to live.