Undeterred by Omicron, tourists seek the sun in welcoming Spain

TAHICHE, Spain — Coronavirus infections were skyrocketing in Spain, causing a number of cases never seen before in the pandemic. Intensive care unit beds were filling up in hospitals.

But that didn’t stop Tatjana Baldynjuk and Timur Neverkevits, a couple from Estonia, from buying plane tickets to visit the island of Lanzarote, a sunny, volcano-dominated outcrop in the east of the archipelago. Spanish from the Canary Islands.

“It was 100% easier to come here than in many other countries,” said Ms Baldynjuk, who works in freight logistics in Estonia.

More than half of Europe’s population could be infected with the Omicron variant of the coronavirus in early March, according to the World Health Organization, and fear of its wild spread has led governments to differing responses. The Netherlands has turned to a lockdown, which it is only beginning to ease slightly. Italy has gone so far as to ban unvaccinated people from bars and public transport.

And while Spain has also tightened some of its own rules in recent weeks, its message to tourists has remained largely the same as before the spike in cases: please come.

Western European countries now have some of the highest infection rates in the world. In Spain, new cases have risen from an average of less than 2,000 a day in early November to more than 130,000 a day in the past week.

But unlike some of its neighbours, Spain does not require a negative test to enter the country. Entering a restaurant remains as easy as ever in some parts of the country. In Madrid, unlike Paris and Rome, there is no need to present proof of a vaccine, and the same is true in many other regions.

Like other countries, Spain is trying to balance whatever economic pain it can tolerate while trying to keep its people safe. But here, memories of recent financial ruin are especially raw.

Spain’s economy contracted by more than 11% in 2020 – the worst drop since the civil war of the 1930s. And it happened just over a decade after the economic crisis of 2008. This crash has devastated much of the economy in the years that followed, leading to widespread unemployment and homelessness, with some of the hungry left to search for food in garbage cans.

Spanish politicians are aware of the challenges of maintaining the flow of visitors to the country, according to Manuel Hidalgo, professor of economics at Pablo de Olavide University in Seville.

“The tourism sector has a high importance now,” he said.

Before the pandemic, tourism activity accounted for around 12.4% of the country’s economic output – and Spain is eager to bump the numbers, especially during the winter months when northern Europeans head to the south to escape the cold. More than 2.23 million people are employed in Spanish tourism, almost 11.8% of the country’s workforce, a figure much higher than in neighbors such as France, at 7.3% , or Germany, 8.4%.

Yet keeping the door open to visitors carries risks that are well remembered in Spain. In 2020, keen to open up to tourism and get back to normal, Spain eased restrictions ahead of the summer, helping to trigger a deadly second wave of coronavirus.

The number of international tourists fell from around 84 million in 2019 to around 19 million in 2020, a drop of more than 77%.

The Spanish government has said it has little interest in returning to the restrictions it imposed in the first wave of 2020, saying that with its successful vaccination campaign the country has already taken the most important steps. possible to limit the impact of the virus.

Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez recently went further, saying the country should accept that the virus has become a reality. “We’re going to have to learn to live with it like we do with many other viruses,” he said.

The island of Lanzarote, which sits 80 miles off the northwest coast of Africa, offers a window into tourism where the coronavirus is accepted as endemic and the flow of foreign visitors continues much as before the pandemic.

Its skies are dotted with planes full of tourists arriving on direct flights from Manchester, Amsterdam and Dusseldorf. Warm weather means much of the island can be enjoyed outdoors, mask-free. Northern Europeans flock to the vineyards built along the black sides of volcanoes and adorned with signs in German and English.

“This must be the way forward, Spain must accept that the virus does not disappear and that we must continue to do business,” said Juan Antonio Torres Díaz, who took charge of Palacio Ico six years ago. month. , restaurant and hotel in the north of the island, betting that there would be a recovery in tourism.

In other parts of the country, some say they are starting to see signs that foreign tourists, too, are learning to live with the virus.

Cristóbal Ruiz Mejías, a longtime waiter at Chinitas, an iconic cafe in the mainland seaside town of Malaga, said he was not just seeing tourists returning from France and the UK, but now from more as far away as Argentina. He is also adapting to changes in his job – such as asking for vaccination certificates before customers can be seated, which is required in the Andalusia region where Málaga is located.

“It always bothers me to have to ask for them,” he said, adding that he fears the virus could scare away tourists and damage Malaga’s fragile recovery.

For Encarna Pérez Donaire, a small-business owner who 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, stores and businesses in the area were not allowed to be open.

Now about three-quarters of its rooms are occupied, she said. His company has developed protocols tourists seem comfortable with, letting rooms air out for a day between guests and leaving keys in boxes to avoid contact with property managers.

Ms Pérez Donaire said the challenges now had less to do with government restrictions and more to do with concerns about the new variant. “People want to hang out, but with Omicron as contagious as it is, there have been more cancellations,” she said.

And Spain’s open-door policy hasn’t been without its risks, a fact tourists like Marian López, a Spanish online marketing professional, realized during a trip with her partner to the island of Lanzarote. .

Before arriving on January 7, the couple celebrated a family dinner for Three Kings Day, a traditional holiday in Spain. They spent the first weekend visiting some of the island’s beaches, then learned that one of the parents during their holiday dinner had Covid-19. Then they too began to experience symptoms including body aches and fever, and tests showed they had been infected, forcing them to self-isolate.

Once their hotel reservation ran out, they had to scramble to find an apartment to stay in to wait out the rest of the week-long mandatory isolation period – all the while getting sicker and sicker.

Ms López, who also runs a travel blog called Travelanding, said she and her partner joked before the trip that it might not be so bad if they had to work from the island s they fell ill. Now they feel different.

“When you’re sick,” she said, “it’s better to be home.”

Nicholas Casey reported from Tahiche, Spain. Jose Bautista reported from Madrid.

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