Gibraltar, Europe’s pandemic wedding hot spot
By Ceylan Yeginsu
When Je’nell Griffin’s husband proposed to her in November, she dreamed of having a big church ceremony in her hometown, Los Angeles, where she imagined gliding down the aisle in an ethereal gown flanked by scores of friends and family.
But eight months later, after her plans were upended by the coronavirus pandemic, the 36-year-old talent recruiter found herself exchanging vows in a small conference room on a yacht hotel in Gibraltar, a tiny British territory nestled under a towering rock on the southern tip of the Iberian Peninsula.
Like many of the couples who married there this summer, Griffin had never heard of Gibraltar until it appeared at the top of a Google search for “the easiest place to get married in Europe.”
At a time when countries around the world are curtailing wedding ceremonies and imposing strict travel restrictions to stop the spread of the coronavirus, Gibraltar has welcomed couples of all nationalities, including Americans, who are determined to perform their nuptials despite the obstacles posed by the pandemic.
“It was vastly different from the dream,” said Griffin, who flew to Gibraltar from Los Angeles via London’s Heathrow Airport. “But in the end, the reality of being married to my person far outweighed any vision.”
Many of the marriages being celebrated in Gibraltar, like Griffin’s, involve a U.S. citizen marrying a partner from another country, because of the numerous hurdles the Trump administration has placed on immigration and travel.
“We were just tired of constantly being disappointed by all the immigration restrictions that worked against us,” Griffin said, referring to the sweeping travel ban that prevented her British fiancé from visiting her in the United States. Now that they are married, he is exempt from the ban because he is a spouse. “Living in different countries, this was the only way we could guarantee seeing each other.”
Other couples who have faced wedding restrictions in their own countries have also seized the opportunity to marry in Gibraltar this summer, ahead of a potential second wave of the virus.
Ireland currently has a 50-person limit on gatherings, so Craig Byrne, 25, and Orla Moore, 22, both Irish, got married in Gibraltar in front of the registrar and two local witnesses to avoid disappointing family members and friends who would not have made the cut to attend.
Even before the pandemic, Gibraltar was a popular wedding destination because of the minimal bureaucracy involved in tying the knot there. Couples are required to present their passports and birth certificates, and stay in the territory overnight either before or after their wedding. They receive their wedding certificate by mail within three weeks.
There is a history to Gibraltar weddings: John Lennon of the Beatles married Yoko Ono there, in 1969, after facing a series of setbacks in other countries.
“We chose Gibraltar because it is quiet, British and friendly,” Lennon is quoted as saying in the book “The History of British Rock ‘n‘ Roll.”
“We tried everywhere else first. I set out to get married on the car ferry and we would have arrived in France married, but they wouldn’t do it,” he said. “We were no more successful with cruise ships. We tried embassies, but three weeks’ residence in Germany or two weeks’ in France were required.”
Few of the couples getting married in Gibraltar on a recent weekend had concerns about the risks of traveling there during the pandemic. So far, the territory has managed to contain the spread of the virus, reporting fewer than 350 total cases and no deaths. However, cases have spiked in recent weeks and the territory’s open border with Spain, where the health ministry reported nearly 9,000 new cases last Friday, prompted Wales to remove Gibraltar from its list of countries exempt from quarantine requirements.
Still, wedding planners are reporting huge demand; the flights on British Airways and easyJet were full throughout August, and slots at the registry office — the British equivalent of an American city hall marriage bureau — are booked up until November.
“We were just expecting people to cancel or postpone, but as soon as the travel restrictions were lifted in July, the phones wouldn’t stop ringing,” said Chamaine Cruz, the founder of wedding events company Sweet Gibraltar Weddings. “It makes sense as it’s easy to get married here. It’s cheap, there are many direct flights, and the marriage certificate provided is recognized worldwide.”
One item of clothing is mandatory for the ceremony: a face covering (even during the first kiss).
The bizarre circumstances bring couples from all over the world together, and on a recent weekend, after their ceremonies, many of them joined locals and tourists at the Ocean Village Marina, a popular drinking spot on the harbor, and celebrated in the bustling restaurants and bars with Champagne and live music. Those sitting outside at the bars and restaurants mostly did not wear masks.