Spanish diplomacy working to secure less strict travel restrictions

Madrid reaches out to Brussels, Germany and Britain in a bid to provide some relief to tourism industry which has been devastated by the coronavirus pandemic

Covid-19 test in airports for passengers arriving from Spain, Croatia, Greece and Malta in Milan, Italy.
Covid-19 test in airports for passengers arriving from Spain, Croatia, Greece and Malta in Milan, Italy.Gtres

The map of travel restrictions affecting Spain is looking increasingly red these days. Over 100 countries, including a few European ones, have banned transit from Spain or have cut off travel links with the country entirely due to the coronavirus situation. Another 65 have introduced disincentives such as quarantines and PCR tests, according to data provided by the Spanish Foreign Ministry.

Spain currently tops the list of restrictions on mobility in Europe – only Romania and Malta are dealing with similar constraints.

Aware of the impact of such measures on tourism, business, and ultimately the country’s reputation, Spanish diplomats are trying to get Brussels and the biggest source nations for tourism to ease these conditions.

But despite the government’s efforts to get foreign officials to differentiate between the various regions of Spain, where coronavirus incidence varies significantly, the entire country is considered a risk zone in Germany – including the Canary Islands, located off the coast of western Africa, where the pandemic has had little impact.

The H10 Hotel in Puerto de La Cruz, on the island of Tenerife.
The H10 Hotel in Puerto de La Cruz, on the island of Tenerife. Ramón de la Rocha (EFE)

Denmark only allows travel that is justified (and tourism is not). Belgium has left the Canary island of Tenerife off its red list, while the United Kingdom, the main source of visitors to Spain before the days of Covid-19, introduced a quarantine for anyone coming from any part of the country. Britain’s decision, taken in late July, was the first of many restrictions to come.

The rising coronavirus figures in Spain, where the latest data points to an incidence of 216 cases for every 100,000 people, have put a damper on the tourism industry’s hopes for the summer following a lockdown that brought the sector to a complete halt. The government now hopes to help a sector that contributes more than 12% of gross domestic product (GDP). Foreign Minister Arancha González Laya last week provided a few details about the strategy at the weekly Cabinet meeting.

Spanish authorities have made three requests to the European Commission. The first is for travel recommendations to differentiate between Spain’s various regions. The second is for Spanish infection figures to be complemented with other relevant indicators such as deaths and intensive care capacity. The third is for the number of coronavirus tests carried out to be included in the criteria to determine whether an area is high risk or low risk.

EU Commission

These requests were partially fulfilled last week. Irritated at the unilateral measures being taken by member states, the Commission on Friday released a statement with a proposal for unified criteria for restricting free movement.

The proposal includes “common criteria and thresholds for member states when deciding whether to introduce travel restrictions.” It also asks states to “consider the percentage of positive tests from all Covid-19 tests carried out in a given area during a seven-day period.”

The statement also notes that travelers coming from high-risk zones should “either undergo quarantine OR undergo a Covid-19 test after arrival – Covid-19 testing being the preferred option.”

Sources in London said that the countries on its quarantine list are reviewed regularly

But the number of infections continues to be the main criteria to determine an area’s risk level, and Brussels’ recommendation is no guarantee that member states will follow its guidelines. Border management remains a national issue, and for this reason, Spain is simultaneously exploring direct contact with the main source nations for tourism, namely Britain and Germany.

Diplomatic sources from both countries with knowledge about the situation said they are aware of Spain’s desire to limit travel rules – for instance by easing restrictions against the Canary Islands, where Covid-19 has had little impact and which relies heavily on tourism. But the same sources avoided creating any expectations for an upcoming change of criteria.

Sources in London said that the countries on its quarantine list are reviewed regularly, and that restrictions will be eased when the health risk decreases. And sources in Berlin noted that it imposes the same rule on every country, requiring self-isolation for anyone coming from a territory with over 50 coronavirus cases for every 100,000 people.

But the variety of rules depending on the destination can make travel from Spain confusing. Greece is currently asking for a PCR test, and Austria offers a choice between a 10-day quarantine and a PCR. France and Portugal, which share borders with Spain, have not introduced restrictions for now. French authorities simply ask travelers to sign a document stating that they do not have coronavirus symptoms.

English version by Susana Urra.

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