TAHICHE, Spain — Coronavirus infections were soaring in Spain, causing caseloads previously unseen in the pandemic. Hospitals were overflowing with beds in Intensive Care Units.
But that didn’t stop Tatjana Baldynjuk and Timur Neverkevits, a couple from Estonia, from buying plane tickets so they could visit the island of Lanzarote, a sunny outcrop dominated by volcanoes on the eastern edge of Spain’s Canary Islands archipelago.
“It was 100 percent easier to come here than many other countries,” said Ms. Baldynjuk, who works in freight logistics in Estonia.
According to the World Health Organization, more than half of Europe may have been infected with Omicron, a coronavirus. Governments have had to respond differently to fears of wild spread. The Netherlands imposed a lockdown that has only begun to ease slightly. Italy went so far as to ban unvaccinated persons from bars and public transport.
Although Spain has tightened its rules in recent week, its message to tourists is the same as before the surge of cases: Please come.
The highest rates of infection in Western Europe are now found in countries like Spain and Portugal. Spain has seen a dramatic increase in new cases from fewer than 2000 per day in November to more than 130,000 per week in the past week.
Spain is not like its neighbors and does not require a negative check to enter the country. It is easy to get into a restaurant in some parts of the country. In Madrid, unlike in Paris and Rome, one needn’t show proof of a vaccine, and the same remains true in many other regions.
Spain, like other countries, is trying to manage the economic pain it can bear while still trying to protect its citizens. However, there are still painful memories of financial ruin in Spain.
The Spanish economy contracted more than 11 percent in 2020 — the worst decline since the Civil War of the 1930s. And this was just over a decade following the 2008 economic crisis. The crash devastated a large portion of the economy over the years that followed, leading many to unemployment and homelessness. Some of those left hungry had to forage in trash bins in search of food.
Spain’s politicians are aware of what’s at stake in keeping the flow of visitors to the country, according to Manuel Hidalgo, an economics professor at Pablo de Olavide University in Seville.
“The tourist sector has an elevated importance now,” he said.
Before the pandemic, the tourism business accounted for roughly 12.4 percent of the country’s economic output — and Spain is eager to get the numbers up again, especially during the winter months when northern Europeans head south to escape the cold. More than 2.23 million people are employed in Spanish tourism, nearly 11.8 percent of the country’s work force, a much higher figure than in neighbors like France, at 7.3 percent, or Germany, 8.4 percent.
Spain is well aware of the risks associated with opening up to tourists. Spain, eager to open tourism and return to normal in 2020, relaxed its restrictions before summer. This helped trigger a second deadly wave of coronavirus.
The number of international tourists dropped from around 84million in 2019 to 19 million in 2020, which is a drop of more that 77 percent.
Spain’s government has said it has little interest in returning to the restrictions it imposed during the first wave in 2020, saying that with its successful vaccination campaign, the country has already taken the biggest measures it can toward curbing the impact of the virus.
Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez recently went a step further, saying that the country should accept that the virus had become a fact of life. “We are going to have to learn to live with it as we do with many other viruses,” he said.
The Lanzarote island, located 80 miles off Africa’s northwestern coast, is a great place to get a glimpse at tourism. Here, the coronavirus can be accepted as an endemic and foreign visitors continue to travel as they did before the pandemic.
Its skies are dotted by planes filled with tourists arriving on direct flights from Manchester, Amsterdam and Düsseldorf. The island’s warm weather allows for outdoor enjoyment without the need to wear a mask. Northern Europeans flock here to find wineries that are built on the black sides and adorned with signs in German, English, and German.
“This has to be the way ahead, Spain has to accept that the virus isn’t going away and that we need to continue on doing business,” said Juan Antonio Torres Díaz, who six months ago took over as the owner of Palacio Ico, a restaurant and hotel in the north of the island, betting that there would be a tourism recovery.
Others in the country say they are starting see signs that foreigners are also learning how to live with it.
Cristóbal Ruiz Mejías, a longtime waiter at Chinitas, an iconic cafe in the beach town of Málaga on the mainland, said he is not only seeing tourists return from France and the United Kingdom, but now from countries further afield like Argentina. He is also adapting to the changes to his work — such as asking for vaccine certificates before customers can be seated, something that is required in the Andalusia region where Málaga is located.
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“It still bothers me to have to ask for them,” he said, adding that he’s worried fear of the virus could drive off tourists and harm Málaga’s fragile recovery.
For Encarna Pérez Donaire, the owner of a small company that owns vacation rentals in Hornos de Segura, a village in southern Spain, the current approach is a welcome contrast to this time last year, when, with no vaccines available, shops and businesses in the region were not allowed to be open.
She stated that three quarters have been occupied. Her company has established protocols that tourists feel comfortable with. It leaves rooms to air out for a day between guests, and places the keys in boxes so they don’t have to contact property managers.
Ms. Pérez Donaire said the challenges now have less to do with government restrictions than with concerns about the new variant. “People want to go out, but with Omicron as contagious as it is, there were more cancellations,” she said.
And the open door policy in Spain hasn’t been without its risks, a fact that tourists like Marian López, a Spanish online marketing professional, came to realize during a trip with her partner to Lanzarote island.
Before they arrived on Jan. 7, the couple enjoyed a meal with their family to celebrate Three Kings Day in Spain. They spent the first weekend visiting some of the island’s beaches, and then learned that one of the relatives at their holiday dinner had Covid-19. They also started to feel the symptoms, including fever and body aches, and tests revealed that they were infected.
After their hotel reservation ran out, they had to scramble to find an apartment to stay in to wait out the rest of the mandatory isolation period of a week — all while getting more ill.
Ms. López, who also runs a travel blog called Travelanding, said she and her partner had joked before the trip that it might not be so bad if they were forced to work from the island if they got sick. They now feel the opposite.
“When you’re sick,” she said, “It’s best to be at home.”
Nicholas CaseyReport from Tahiche in Spain José BautistaReport from Madrid
Source: NY Times