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COVID-19

Coronavirus empties Spanish resorts of elderly tourists

On Spain's Costa Dorada, the Hotel Piramide would normally be heaving with its annual influx of older visitors who regularly come for a spot of welcome winter sun.

Coronavirus empties Spanish resorts of elderly tourists
Illustration photo: AFP

But things are different this year following the cancellation of a popular holiday scheme for seniors over the coronavirus crisis.

“We started the year really well but overnight all that changed and the hotel is practically empty,” sighs David Rodriguez, director of the hotel, one of the few still open in the resort town of Salou, about 100 kilometres (60 miles) down the coast from Barcelona.

As the number of infections has soared, Spain implemented a string of restrictions to slow the spread of the virus, one of which was to scrub a state-sponsored scheme of cheap, low-season getaways for pensioners.

Set up in 1985, the programme is hugely popular, attracting around 800,000 participants every year who enjoy a week with meals at one of numerous destinations within Spain for around 200 euros ($220).

At hotels like the Piramide, a typical complex with pools and sea-facing balconies, these visitors keep businesses going through the lean months of winter.

The town, with its 26,700 residents and Port Aventura theme park, lives off tourism, both national and international, welcoming a regular stream of visitors from Britain, France and Russia.

But from March until Holy Week, which this year is the second week of April, the entire complex is filled with older Spanish tourists, Rodriguez says. By now, the hotel would normally be 80 percent full. But facing at least a month of cancellations, everything has changed, with occupancy expected to reach around 15 percent, he said.

Questions over Holy Week

And the uncertainty has gripped the entire Spanish tourism sector just three weeks ahead of high season which normally moves into top gear with the Easter holidays. 

“Holy Week is the beginning of the season. A bad Holy Week will be a bad start,” says Mar Farriol, owner of Goretti, a restaurant on the waterfront.

“The uncertainty is affecting all of us. Not only the restaurants but the economy in general. We are all waiting to see how things pan out,” she says. Even major players are preparing for the worst in Spain, the world's second-most popular destination where tourism is key to the economy.

“We've never had a crisis like this, such a sudden, widespread drop in activity,” says Cesar Gutierrez, president of Fetave, which represents the travel agency sector.

“Right now, we are hardly seeing any income, we have a very serious problem of liquidity. If the government doesn't take steps now, many of us will struggle to survive,” he said.

For now, the government has pledged to plough 400 million euros in liquidity into the hotel and tourism sector.

Leaving early

At the Piramide hotel, a few guests can be seen playing petanque outside, chatting in the restaurant or walking through the semi-deserted streets, past empty apartment blocks or closed shops and bars.

“We're fine here, there are hardly any cases. But I want to go home to be near my family, just in case,” explains 76-year-old Manoli Sabido. She and her husband Ramon Moreno are regulars on this programme and had planned another trip in May although they are unsure if the programme will be back on track by then.

“We have to put down the deposit but we don't know what to do,” he said. 

Others have cut short their holiday in the face of the rapid spread of infections, which now number more than 4,200 in Spain, alongside 121 dead, and which is now moving to impose tighter and tighter restrictions across the country.

One of them is Paulo Arruarte who, along with a group of friends, has just packed up his car and is preparing to go home a day earlier to San Sebastian on Spain's northern coast, which has been badly hit by the virus.

“All the activities we had planned have been stopped or restricted. We're not doing anything here, so we have decided to go home before they close off our city,” the pensioner said.

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COVID-19

Spain rules out EU’s advice on compulsory Covid-19 vaccination 

Spain’s Health Ministry said Thursday there will be no mandatory vaccination in the country following the European Commission’s advice to Member States to “think about it” and Germany’s announcement that it will make vaccines compulsory in February.

Spain rules out EU's advice on compulsory Covid-19 vaccination 
A Spanish man being vaccinated poses with a custom-made T-shirt showing Spain's chief epidimiologist Fernando Simón striking a 'Dirty Harry/Clint Eastwood' pose over the words "What part of keep a two-metre distance don't you understand?' Photo: José Jordan

Spain’s Health Minister Carolina Darias on Thursday told journalists Covid-19 vaccines will continue to be voluntary in Spain given the “very high awareness of the population” with regard to the benefits of vaccination.

This follows the words of European Commission chief Ursula von der Leyen on Thursday, urging Member States to “think about mandatory vaccination” as more cases of the Omicron variant are detected across Europe. 

READ ALSO: Is Spain proving facts rather than force can convince the unvaccinated?

“I can understand that countries with low vaccine coverage are contemplating this and that Von der Leyen is considering opening up a debate, but in our country the situation is absolutely different,” Darias said at the press conference following her meeting with Spain’s Interterritorial Health Council.

According to the national health minister,  this was also “the general belief” of regional health leaders of each of Spain’s 17 autonomous communities she had just been in discussion with over Christmas Covid measures. 

READ MORE: Spain rules out new restrictions against Omicron variant

Almost 80 percent of Spain’s total population is fully vaccinated against Covid-19, a figure which is around 10 percent higher if looking at those who are eligible for the vaccine (over 12s). 

It has the highest vaccination rate among Europe’s most populous countries.

Germany announced tough new restrictions on Thursday in a bid to contain its fourth wave of Covid-19 aimed largely at the country’s unvaccinated people, with outgoing Chancellor Angela Merkel speaking in favour of compulsory vaccinations, which the German parliament is due to vote on soon.

Austria has also already said it will make Covid-19 vaccines compulsory next February, Belgium is also considering it and Greece on Tuesday said it will make vaccination obligatory for those over 60.

But for Spain, strict Covid-19 vaccination rules have never been on the table, having said from the start that getting the Covid-19 jabs was voluntary. 

There’s also a huge legal implication to imposing such a rule which Spanish courts are unlikely to look on favourably. 

Stricter Covid restrictions and the country’s two states of alarm, the first resulting in a full national lockdown from March to May 2020, have both been deemed unconstitutional by Spain’s Constitutional Court. 

READ ALSO: Could Spain lock down its unvaccinated or make Covid vaccines compulsory?

The Covid-19 health pass to access indoor public spaces was also until recently consistently rejected by regional high courts for breaching fundamental rights, although judges have changed their stance favouring this Covid certificate over old Covid-19 restrictions that affect the whole population.

MAP: Which regions in Spain now require a Covid health pass for daily affairs?

“In Spain what we have to do is to continue vaccinating as we have done until now” Darias added. 

“Spaniards understand that vaccines are not only a right, they are an obligation because we protect others with them”.

What Spanish health authorities are still considering is whether to vaccinate their 5 to 11 year olds after the go-ahead from the European Medicines Agency, with regions such as Madrid claiming they will start vaccinating their young children in December despite there being no official confirmation from Spain’s Vaccine Committee yet.

READ MORE: Will Spain soon vaccinate its children under 12?

Spain’s infection rate continues to rise day by day, jumping 17 points up to 234 cases per 100,000 people on Thursday. There are now also five confirmed cases of the Omicron variant in the country, one through community transmission.

Hospital bed occupancy with Covid patients has also risen slightly nationwide to 3.3 percent, as has ICU Covid occupancy which now stands at 8.4 percent, but the Spanish government insists these figures are “almost three times lower” than during previous waves of the coronavirus pandemic.

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