Omicron COVID-19 variant threatens to deal fatal blow to Spain

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LA CORUNA, Spain — Spain is a huge sun terrace, a beachfront hotel with a multitude of historic buildings and unparalleled museums. The land of a thousand selfies raising a beer to the blue sky. The same can be said of France. Before the pandemic, they were the two most visited destinations in the world. That said, tourism involves crowds, long journeys, large hospitality spaces, and generally anything that increases the chances of contagion in the event of a pandemic.

Today the industry has collapsed and generates barely half of what it did a few years ago. And, as if that weren’t enough, the European Center for Disease Prevention and Control has just advised against travel to most states in the EU, due to the spread of the new, ultra-mutated variant of Omicron, of which seven cases have been identified in Spain. until there. At the moment, Spain, with very low levels of contagion and around 80 percent of its population vaccinated, is still safe.

Mediterranean Europe has dared to dream of a summer of recovery for 2021, and although the numbers have improved, they are far from what they were in 2019. Spain, France, Italy, Greece and Portugal are eagerly awaiting the resurrection of international tourism. In many cases, including in Spain, the extreme dependence on tourism has made it virtually the only hope of economic recovery from the pandemic.

To put it in perspective: in 2019, tourism represented 12.4% of Spain’s GDP. This year, the tourism industry represents half of it.

Alexandre Fratini is the owner of the Pinocchio restaurant in Benidorm, on the east coast of Spain, and a member of the board of directors of the ABRECA hotel association. “Destinations like Benidorm have been the hardest hit by the pandemic, because we live exclusively on tourism,” he told the Daily Beast. “In cities like Alicante, the decrease in turnover was 25% while in Benidorm, the decrease reached 85%. The lack of tourists has resulted in the closure of many businesses.

Nuria Montes, general secretary of the Valencian hotel association HOSBEC, paints a gloomy picture by remembering what the sector has gone through. “In March 2020, we started the year with almost no activity. It was only in the summer that about 50 percent of the hotels were able to reopen, but subsequently almost all of them closed again. From October 2020, Valencia was cordoned off around the perimeter, preventing tourists from entering the city until May 9, 2021. It was a devastating time: 90% of the hotel supply was closed.

She concluded: “Although the situation has gradually returned to normal”, in August, “between 20 and 30% of the hotels in the Valencian Community were still closed”.

The economies of France and Italy have done better during the pandemic. According to the balance of payments of the European Central Bank, the losses of the two countries combined do not exceed what Spain lost between January and September 2020. The explanation is simple: Spain is focused on selling tourists its so called sun and beach model, thus most visits take place in spring and summer, precisely when the greatest restrictions were imposed in 2020. French and Italian visitors are more staggered throughout the year, which has helped them to overcome the international tourism crisis.

“The next few weeks are decisive.“

Although Spain is the third country in the world with the most UNESCO World Heritage sites, surpassed only by Italy and China, none of them are among the 20 most visited. Analysts agree that tourists who come to Spain are interested in sun and beach. It is quite astonishing that this is so in a country that is home to the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela, the Alhambra in Granada and the Prado Museum in Madrid. The truth is that several decades ago the Spaniards staked everything on this tourist map that put the country in its current situation.

With only 50% of their turnover before the pandemic in 2020, travel agencies, tour operators, hotels and catering services in Spain have had to place many of their workers on temporary layoffs, an authorization that exempts them to pay workers, who are instead part of their wages by the government. Italy and France have also opted for a partial unemployment system with compensation of up to 70 percent of workers’ previous gross wages. A significant number of these workers have joined the workforce, but things are still not back to what they were before the pandemic and businesses dependent on tourism are still oversized.

“In 20 months of the pandemic,” Montes told the Daily Beast, “the tourism sector has received totally residual public support. The government is expected to expand the temporary work regulatory records system, activate direct aids to improve cash flow, and launch a plan to boost tourism demand.

Fratini, the restaurateur, agrees. “Since the start of the pandemic, we have been asking for compensation for the losses generated by mandatory closings, reduced capacity, shortened opening hours and the lack of tourists. Autonomous and central governments should inject liquidity into the sector, modernize it without resorting to loans, ”he said.

It has reached the point where social assistance is needed to avoid leaving thousands of families and businesses destitute, but the underlying problem remains unresolved. We are now hearing voices that are increasingly critical of economies that are too dependent on tourism, especially in Spain, which is more dependent on tourism than the others. But changing an entire economic model does not happen in a few months.

Seen in context, it was reasonable for these countries to focus on leisure travelers. Mediterranean tourism has grown steadily since 1995, with the sole exceptions of the financial crisis of 2009 and the internal instability of Turkey and Egypt in 2016. No one could have predicted that a virus would break out. , stopping everything. The end point has left workers, entrepreneurs and governments destabilized, surrounded by a trail of bankruptcies and ruins, and with huge masses of labor dependent on aid programs.

While the country is still open to tourists, the new variant has plenty of people in the industry worried that the coming weeks will bring them back to square one.

“The next few weeks are decisive for how the new strain will be treated if the vaccines are effective,” says Montes, “and if it will take further restrictive measures that could impact tourism”.

However, there is light at the end of the tunnel. Data recently released by SiteMinder’s World Hotel Index shows that in 2021, Madrid and Barcelona topped their pre-pandemic visitor levels, ahead of other European cities such as Paris, London, Amsterdam and Berlin.

The case of Madrid is paradigmatic. From the start of the pandemic, his regional government pursued a different strategy for all major European cities, choosing to impose as few restrictions as possible, leaving these decisions entirely in the hands of health experts without political interference. Today, he can boast of having recovered almost all of the national tourism that he had before the health crisis and, as the regional government explains, the objective is now to promote tourism from America and Southeast Asia.

If there is hope, it is because after all that we have been through, the beaches of the Mediterranean, the Camino de Santiago, the Greek Islands, Seville, Rome and “Portuguese Rome” – Braga – are still standing in all their glory. , still so radiant.

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