Spain’s economic love affair with tourism helped drag it out of the 2007-8 financial meltdown and the ensuing euro-zone crisis. But it’s been an Achilles’ heel during the Covid-19 pandemic, with travel bans, quarantines and social distancing throttling global travel. The country posted an eye-watering 11% contraction in gross domestic product last year, the worst since its Civil War, after several pandemic waves and a botched attempt to save Christmas.
Now that tourists are trickling back as some travel restrictions are lifted for Easter, Spain and the European Union face a critical test of how to keep a grip on infections, avoid another lost summer and shift the strategy of tourism-dependent economies in the long run. Failure would leave deep scars.
What’s attracting German and French holidaymakers to places like Majorca and Madrid isn’t just the sun, but the fact Spain has so far this year done a good job keeping outbreaks under control without imposing blanket shutdowns of cultural venues and nightlife. Daily cases and deaths have fallen since January even as many restaurants and bars stay open, with regions setting their own rules. Spain is hardly lax overall — there’s a national curfew, restrictions on travel between regions and PCR test checks at the border — but to locked-down Europeans it’s Woodstock.
Before getting to a summer of love, though, Spain has to navigate Easter week. The temptation to start lifting restrictions to capture more tourist euros comes at the very moment cases and deaths are beginning to tick up. Spain reported 356 deaths on Thursday, the highest single-day figure in three weeks, according to daily El Pais, and its health ministry warned of concerning case spikes in several regions.
With vaccine doses administered so far only enough to cover 7.6% of its population, Spain can’t afford to drop its guard. Usama Bilal, an assistant professor at the Drexel Dornsife School of Public Health, tells me Easter is Spain’s “last big hurdle” before immunization effects will start to be felt.
The problem is both how tourists behave and also the repercussions that might have on trust in social-distancing rules as a whole. Foreigners are increasingly portrayed in the media as treating Spain like an amusement park, whether they’re throwing indoor parties in Madrid or dancing mask-free on the beach.
There is resentment over the unequal rules that restrict Spaniards from moving between provinces, yet which allow tourists to fly in from thousands of miles away to visit the Prado museum or the Alhambra palace. “Why are we not allowed to see our grandparents, but the French can come here and get drunk?” celebrity chef Karlos Arguinano recently fumed on television.
This is not the kind of combination that’s helpful in a pandemic. Without adherence to the rules or a cautious approach, Daniel Lopez Acuna, adjunct professor at the Andalusian School of Public Health, says there is a real “question mark” over the sustainability of reopening to tourists.
There’s no easy fix here, judging by past pandemic stand-offs between the central government in Madrid and the regions. But the stakes are high. If epidemiologists’ warnings about a fourth wave prove prophetic, the fallout will ripple beyond Spain and into the EU. With the tourism industry normally accounting for about 12% of Spain’s GDP, another lost summer means greater economic disparity between the euro zone’s members and additional economic scarring for a country like Spain, according to Morgan Stanley economist Jacob Nell. The strength and consistency of rules need to be monitored.
In the medium-term, though, Spain’s best hope is its vaccination campaign. It has gone a long way toward covering health-care workers and the elderly in nursing homes, according to European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control data, but its coverage of over-80s is only about 50%, in line with the EU’s underwhelming average. The bloc’s vaccine supply constraints won’t fully ease until the course of the third quarter, according to Morgan Stanley, which means getting through the next few months is crucial.
In the long run, tourism-dependent countries like Spain will have to re-think their strategy eventually. The pre-pandemic over-tourism of crowded city streets, bachelor parties and price-gouging Airbnbs was one kind of public-health hazard. The current state of under-tourism, or no-tourism, isn’t healthy either. There’s been talk of “upgrading” Spanish tourism in terms of quality for some time. Maybe this is the opportunity — provided this Easter week doesn’t lose Europe another summer.
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