Time was, a few months ago, that the beloved travel destinations Madrid, Barcelona, and the Balearics were wrestling through the shoals of what in 2019 was piquantly called “overtourism.” Locals protested en masse against the annual global floods of tourists across the northern Mediterranean, but the most vocal demonstrations were, understandably, in Spain and Italy. The merciless march of SARS-CoV-2 around the orb has atomized the debate on sustainable travel. And, though the protests were quite recent, they now seem to have occurred several millennia ago, on an entirely different planet, one upon which the freedom to travel for business or pleasure was an inalienable right.
That was then.
This is now: In a television interview on April 17, Spanish Labor Minister Yolanda Díaz described the the bleak travel landscape faced by the already-beleaguered Spanish economy by giving voice to what many sensed but had not quite wrapped their arms around, namely, that Spain’s tourism sector, which has contributed in excess of $200 billion annually since 2018 to the GDP, will effectively be shuttered until the end of 2020. Specifically, she said in the interview that the earliest that a revival of the badly-hit tourism and leisure sectors could be contemplated would be by the end of the year.
Measured from the beginning of Spain’s lockdown in mid-March, the nine-and-a-half-month stoppage will mean that Spain will miss the entire spring-to-fall travel season. Estimated at some 15% of the GDP, tourism’s $200-plus billion rolling in every year was the lifeblood for literally thousands of businesses small and large. Some minor wintertime chunk of that capital flowed to Spain in the first ten weeks of 2020, before its March 17 lockdown, but these earnings will only be a fraction of what peak season would have brought.
Put another way, with 83-plus million foreign tourists in 2019, defined as visitors who spent the night, Spain was one of the top two most beloved travel destinations on earth — the other being France. In Spain in 2019, there were an additional 41 million day-trippers, which is to say, folks who popped over by land from Portugal or the south of France, or cruise-ship passengers who disembarked in Valencia, Barcelona, or any other fetching Spanish port of call.
It’s a deceptively simple fact, and given Spain’s monumental battle through the pandemic, it’s quite logical, but it beggars belief that the 2020 travel season, which classically runs from April until October in the Balearics, on the Costa del Sol, the Costa Brava, Andalucia, Galicia, the Basque country and in Catalonia, simply will not happen. No water-, land-. or airborne revelers are wanted, and by the way, no globe-trotting business folk, either. If you could actually get to Spain, which at the moment is not possible, in Alice-in-Wonderland speak, there will be no there there if you do.
Theoretically, if a stray superyacht that annually plies the Med — say, Sir Philip Green’s Lionheart out of Monaco — heaved up wanting fuel in Malaga or Barcelona, they’d likely sell him the diesel, but as for getting a mooring to allow Sir Philip and his cohort to disport themselves in the shops and restaurants ashore, the Spanish government will be having exactly none of that. Until about Christmas, according to Labor Minister Díaz, if then.
Labor Minister Díaz’ assessment was echoed at an unrelated press conference, also on Friday, by her cabinet-level colleague, Spain’s Minister of Finance María Jesús Montero, who said quite bluntly that Spain would not resume touristic activity until the point at which the safety of Spaniards and visitors alike could be assured. As is the case everywhere, every public and business sector in Spain is still reeling from what has happened. Construction workers are back at work as of April 13, along with a trickle of factory workers, but Spain’s industrial sector is looking to kick back into gear over the summer — again, with no hard timetable. At bottom, in her statement, Ms. Montero coupled the opening of the country to international travelers with Spain’s performance versus the virus through the pandemic’s next few months.
The good news is that Spain, second only to the United States in fatalities from the virus, is through the worst of its immediate bout, but it was a fight that sapped the country of 20,000 lives and much energy. The April 17 messages from its cabinet ministers were not particularly salubrious for the travel sector. As in the United States, the Spanish dates of resumption of business-as-usual remain hazy because they have to be: How and when to re-open the country won’t be known until a dependable, easily scalable antibody test arrives to determine the level of immunity in its population. Spain can be justly proud to have battled back from the brink and to have finally flattened its rate of infection, but it still faces a huge fight through the stand-down.
That fight will be prolonged by having the immense $200-billion spigot of tourism turned off for the 2020 travel season. Like every other badly afflicted country, Spain has little or no choice — international travel was the virus’ mode of insinuation. But simply to say that the country’s travel industry will suffer in the near-to-medium term does not do justice to the circumstance. Last year’s 124 million travelers to Spain were, in effect, employers of thousands of people across other sectors of the economy that support and benefit from classic tourism, in culture, in retail, in food and drink. Taken together, what ministers Montero and Díaz were saying on April 17 is that the majority of those 124 million travelers will not be in Spain to put anybody to work this year.
There is much about this pandemic that is new, or that has never happened — which is not to say that a global ratcheting down of international borders as a result of a pandemic has not been imagined by our better epidemiologists. On the ground however, on top of the painful excoriation brought by the disease to its 2-million-plus diagnosed victims thus far, part of the problem the pandemic presents is its global scale. There are very few playbooks written for something of this dimension.
But in this summer high season, Spain and the rest of Europe will experience in detail how that circumstance — the absence of millions of journeys causing not just one but many multi-billion-dollar shortfalls in tourism meccas — will play out. No matter how robust any national economic rescue package is, it’s fair to say that the human cost in bankruptcies and unemployment will be astronomical. Just as the virus’ onset through the mechanism of global travel was specific in each place, no two countries’ paths back toward full operation will be exactly alike. Spain’s lesson for us right now is that its road back toward freedom of movement will be one of the longer ones.
Over the past couple of decades, the advent of low-cost European carriers such as Ryanair, Easyjet and others has brought Spain a particularly scruffy form of tourism to its more gregarious destinations such as Benidorm and Magaluf. Feckless youth, primarily from Europe’s northern tier, arrive by the thousands, fuel up copiously, and party hearty, giving the beleaguered Policía a sometimes not-so-merry chase.
This summer in Benidorm, the police are going to be missing every bunch of rowdies that they ever had to cart off to the tank to dry out.