After a Long, Hard Summer, Southern Europe’s Long Awaited Tourism Recovery Remains Largely Elusive

Global travel is still far from returning to anything like the conditions that existed prior to the pandemic — at least for non-essential travellers.

The EU’s covid-19 passport “has been of little benefit” for Spain’s tourism industry, according to Carlos Abella, secretary general of the country’s Tourism Board. “The expected boost to confidence and mobility between countries that the single-page document was supposed to provide has not materialised. On the contrary, each country has set its own rules and that has generated a lot of uncertainty”. 

As NC warned back in late June, Europe’s grand reopening risked becoming a bit of a damp squib. Travel restrictions were still in place for many countries, including the UK, where cases of the Delta variant were (and still are) surging. In 2019, the UK ranked as the leading tourist market for Spain, accounting for almost one in every four visitors, as well as Cyprus and Malta. In Greece and Portugal it was the second largest. But it wasn’t until August that British travellers could finally visit the mainland. Many chose not to.

A Lot Better than 2020 But Still a Lot Worse Than 2019

Spain received 4.4 million overseas tourists in July, according to the National Institute of Statistics (INE). That’s 78% more than last year. But it’s still 55% less than the same month of 2019, back in the old prepandemic days. The overall balance for this year so far is also not overly encouraging. Between January and July 2021, 9.8 million foreigners visited Spain. That’s significantly below the 13.2 million arrivals the country had received by July 2020 — thanks to the two and a half normal months of tourism (January to mid-March) before the first lockdown. It is also 80% lower than the 47.9 million arrivals Spain received in the first seven months of 2019.

In other words, recovery is still a long way off. And that is not good news for a sector that provides around 13% of Spain’s GDP. Last year, foreign tourist expenditure collapsed to less than €20 billion, from €92 billion in 2019. Domestic tourism picked up some of the slack, but nonetheless Spain still ended up suffering the second biggest loss in tourism revenues (-$47 billion) worldwide, after the US (-$147 billion).

As happened last year, domestic tourism has made up some of the difference so far this year. Eighty-eight percent of Spanish residents who travelled this summer stayed local. That is good news for the environment. It also provided vital support for the country’s all-essential hospitality industry, although it was not such good news for travel agents or airlines. And vacationing Spaniards, even with all the savings amassed (by some) over the past 18 months of lockdowns, curfews and travel restrictions, do not have as much disposable income as German, British, Scandinavian, Asian or American tourists.

“Domestic tourism has performed very well, even surpassing pre-Covid levels, above all in coastal areas,” says Abella. “And it has salvaged the summer season, but it does not make up for the fall in international visitors.”

In the absence of overseas visitors Spain’s Tourism Board said it will be impossible to save the industry without a common EU-wide policy on travel requirements for the bloc. Hotels and hostels that have struggled to generate revenues over the past 18 months are going under. Many are being bought by private equity funds. Even in the northeastern region of Catalonia, which has seen the highest occupancy levels this summer, 113 hotels — ranging from small-family run pensiones to big luxury establishments belonging to global chains — have been put up for sale, according to the real estate portal Idealista. Sixty-five of them are in Barcelona.

In other parts of the EU, the summer season was either somewhat better or somewhat worse than in Spain. Cities and regions that tend to attract long-distance travellers have fared worse. A case in point is Rome which has grown to depend on the custom of well-heeled American and Asian visitors. Though travellers from the US, China, Japan and South Korea were on the EU’s safe list for travel to Europe for much of this summer, they have not been coming in anywhere like the numbers of prepandemic years.

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