Undeterred by omicron, tourists seek sun in a welcoming Spain
By Nicholas Casey and José Bautista
Coronavirus infections were soaring in Spain, causing caseloads previously unseen in the pandemic. Intensive care unit beds were filling up in hospitals.
But that did not stop Tatjana Baldynjuk and Timur Neverkevits, a couple from Estonia, from buying plane tickets so they could visit the island of Lanzarote, a sunny outcrop dominated by volcanoes on the eastern edge of Spain’s Canary Islands archipelago.
“It was 100% easier to come here than many other countries,” said Baldynjuk, who works in freight logistics in Estonia.
More than half the people of Europe could be infected with the omicron variant of the coronavirus by early March, according to the World Health Organization, and fear of its wild spread has led governments to differing responses. The Netherlands turned to a lockdown, which it has only now begun to ease slightly. Italy went as far as banning unvaccinated people from bars and public transport.
And while Spain, too, tightened some of its own rules in recent weeks, its message to tourists has remained largely the same as before the surge in cases: Please come.
Western European countries now have some of the highest infection rates in the world. In Spain, new cases rocketed from an average of fewer than 2,000 a day in early November to more than 130,000 daily in the past week.
But unlike some of its neighbors, Spain does not require a negative test to enter the country. Entering a restaurant remains as simple as ever in some parts of the country. In Madrid, unlike in Paris and Rome, one need not show proof of a vaccine, and the same remains true in many other regions.
Like other countries, Spain is trying to balance how much economic pain it can tolerate as it tries to keep its people safe. But here, memories of recent financial ruin are especially raw.
The Spanish economy contracted more than 11% in 2020 — the worst decline since the Civil War of the 1930s. And that came just over a decade after the economic crisis of 2008. That crash devastated a wide swath of the economy in the years that followed, leading to widespread unemployment and homelessness, with some of the hungry left to forage in trash bins for food.
Before the pandemic, the tourism business accounted for roughly 12.4% of the country’s economic output — and Spain is eager to get the numbers up again, especially during the winter months when northern Europeans head south to escape the cold. More than 2.23 million people are employed in Spanish tourism, nearly 11.8% of the country’s workforce, a much higher figure than in neighbors like France, at 7.3%, or Germany, at 8.4%.
Yet keeping the door open to visitors comes with risks that are well remembered in Spain. In 2020, eager to open to tourism and return to normal, Spain relaxed its restrictions before summer, helping trigger a deadly second wave of the coronavirus.
The number of international tourists fell from around 84 million in 2019 to roughly 19 million in 2020, a drop of more than 77%.
Spain’s government has said it has little interest in returning to the restrictions it imposed during the first wave in 2020, saying that with its successful vaccination campaign, the country has already taken the biggest measures it can toward curbing the impact of the virus.
Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez recently went a step further, saying that the country should accept that the virus had become a fact of life.
“We are going to have to learn to live with it as we do with many other viruses,” he said.
The island of Lanzarote, which sits 80 miles off the northwestern coast of Africa, offers a window into tourism where the coronavirus is accepted as endemic and the circulation of foreign visitors continues much as it did before the pandemic.
Its skies are dotted by planes filled with tourists arriving on direct flights from Manchester, England; Amsterdam; and Düsseldorf, Germany. The warm weather means much of the island can be enjoyed outdoors, with no mask. Northern Europeans flock to wineries built along the black sides of volcanoes and bedecked in signs in German and English.
“This has to be the way ahead. Spain has to accept that the virus isn’t going away and that we need to continue on doing business,” said Juan Antonio Torres Díaz, who six months ago took over as the owner of Palacio Ico, a restaurant and hotel in the north of the island, betting that there would be a tourism recovery.
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 beach town of Málaga on the mainland, said he is not only seeing tourists return from France and the United Kingdom but also now from countries farther afield, like Argentina. He is also adapting to the changes to his work — such as asking for vaccine certificates before customers can be seated, something that is required in the Andalusia region where Málaga is located.
“It still bothers me to have to ask for them,” he said, adding that he is worried fear of the virus could drive off tourists and harm Málaga’s fragile recovery.
For Encarna Pérez Donaire, the owner of a small company that 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, shops and businesses in the region were not allowed to be open.
Now about three-quarters of her rooms have been occupied, she said. Her company has worked out protocols that tourists seem comfortable with, leaving rooms to air out a day between guests and leaving the keys in boxes to avoid contact with the property managers.
Pérez Donaire said the challenges now have less to do with government restrictions than with concerns about the new variant.
“People want to go out, but with omicron as contagious as it is, there were more cancellations,” she said.
And the open-door policy in Spain has not been without its risks, a fact that tourists like Marian López, a Spanish online marketing professional, came to realize during a trip with her partner to Lanzarote island.
Before arriving Jan. 7, the couple celebrated a dinner with family for Three Kings Day, a traditional holiday in Spain. They spent the first weekend visiting some of the island’s beaches and then learned that one of the relatives at their holiday dinner had COVID-19. Then they, too, began to feel symptoms, including body aches and fever, and tests showed they had been infected, forcing them to isolate.
After their hotel reservation ran out, they had to scramble to find an apartment to stay in to wait out the rest of the mandatory isolation period of a week — all while getting more ill.
López, who also runs a travel blog called Travelanding, said she and her partner had joked before the trip that it might not be so bad if they were forced to work from the island if they got sick. Now they feel otherwise.
“When you’re sick,” she said, “it’s best to be at home.”