Francina Armengol underlined why the summer tourist season matters so much to Spain’s Balearic Islands when she set out the economic devastation wreaked by the coronavirus pandemic — output collapsed last year by a savage 24 per cent.
“The economy completely stopped,” said the leader of the archipelago that contains Mallorca, Menorca and Ibiza, which in a good year attracts 14m foreign visitors. On the eve of a new tourist season, only about a fifth of the region’s roughly 1,000 hotels are open.
The Balearics’ plight stands out even in Spain, whose 2020 growth was the worst in the industrialised world. But it is shared with other Spanish and Greek islands battered economically by the pandemic and preparing for the return to mass tourism they hope will be their salvation.
German tourists are already returning, providing welcome relief to hoteliers and bar owners. But the difference between success and failure may rest in winning back visitors from the UK.
Spain on Friday said it would readmit UK tourists from May 24; Greece opened to UK visitors last month. But both remain outside Britain’s “green list” of destinations to which UK nationals can travel without rigorous testing and quarantine requirements.
Ahead of the tourist season, the Spanish and Greek islands are taking differing paths.
Spain waited longer to open up to British tourists although it is still pre-empting formal EU guidance.
Greece is going its own way, opening up earlier, vaccinating people on tourist-reliant islands ahead of the rest of the population, and accepting foreign visitors vaccinated with shots not yet approved by the EU pharmaceutical watchdog.
“Some destinations are playing irresponsible games and sometimes there are irresponsible proposals,” Armengol said. “Public health is fundamental.”
She highlighted the Balearics’ tough Covid curbs — a marked contrast with Madrid, which has sought to relax restrictions — and controls on transit to and from the mainland. The Balearics’ 14-day infection rate is less than a third of Spain’s as a whole while its seven-day rate is marginally below the UK’s.
In light of such statistics, Spain is pushing the UK to assess destinations’ safety on a regional rather than national basis. It believes that would allow British travellers — the second biggest source of tourists for the Balearics after Germany and the main source for Spain as a whole — to return to the islands and elsewhere.
The importance of such a step was underlined this week when the UK government set out its advice on any destination not deemed “green”. Grant Shapps, UK transport secretary, emphasised that visitors to “amber” countries such as Spain or Greece would have to take several tests and observe quarantine when back in the UK. “If it’s an ‘amber’ or ‘red’ country, please don’t travel for holidays,” he stressed.
The return of British tourists is economically vital for Spain and Greece. Both experienced falls in the number of tourists of almost 80 per cent last year; both are seeking a return this year to about half of 2019 levels.
In normal circumstances, tourism represents about 12 per cent of Spanish gross domestic product, in Greece it accounts for about a fifth of output. Corfu, a favourite destination for British visitors, depends about 90 per cent directly or indirectly on tourism, according to Charalmbos Voulgaris, head of the island’s hotel association. He warned that if this summer was as bad as 2020 “that would be disastrous”.
With so much at stake, Greece said in April that UK tourists were welcome. This was extended to all countries this month. It is also the first EU country to allow people vaccinated with Russia’s Sputnik V vaccine, not yet approved by the bloc’s drug regulator or the WHO, to enter without quarantine.
“Russia is an important market for us,” Kyriakos Mitsotakis, Greek prime minister, told the Financial Times. “We are diligent following EU rules, but as far as welcoming tourists in Greece for a week who have been vaccinated with the Sputnik vaccine, I don’t see any problem.”
The country is also banking on its own vaccination strategy to ensure tourist hotspots remain safe. Thirty-two small Greeks islands have already had their population fully vaccinated and were declared the country’s first “Covid-free” areas. The government aims to fully vaccinate another 36 medium-sized islands by the end of May and 19 larger ones by end-June.
But Greece is not instituting controls similar to the Balearics on journeys to and from the mainland and its approximately 100 inhabited islands. Instead, it hopes the country as a whole will make the UK’s green list.
British officials have indicated that the updated list due early next month would look specifically at islands where possible — and give priority to the largest UK tourist markets. Portugal, which has already opened for tourism, is the only EU country on the UK green list.
“We are keeping data on individual islands under regular review, just as we do for all countries and territories,” said the UK transport department.
That approach could mean the Balearics and Canary Islands get the British all-clear ahead of Spain as a whole. But it could signify problems for Greece, whose infection rate is 80 per cent higher than that of Spain, according to the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control.
Shapps told the FT it was unlikely “people have a very long time to wait before other countries are able to join the green list”, citing advances in the EU’s vaccination programme.
In any case, Greece is looking further afield. By the end of the month it will have more flights from the US than it did even before the pandemic.
“This is not a normal summer,” said Akis Skertsos, an aide to the prime minister. “Safety is an issue . . . We want visitors to trust us.”