Sun, sand and social distancing: What lies ahead for tourism in Spain

With social distancing on the sand, restaurants restructured to restrict crowding and temperature-taking at the door in hotels, Spain is looking for creative ways to lure back tourists in the post-pandemic era.

Sun, sand and social distancing: What lies ahead for tourism in Spain
A father and son wearing masks stroll along a beach in Mallorca. Photo: AFP

As the world's second-most visited country, Spain usually moves into high gear in the run-up to Easter, but this year, all bets were off with the coronavirus epidemic dealing a devastating blow to the tourism industry which is now seeking ways to salvage the summer.   

“We want to be at the forefront of those destinations offering reassurance to our clients by being the safest and the most hygienic,” said Daniel Barbero, the local official in charge of tourism in Almunecar, a seaside town some 80 kilometres (50 miles) east of Malaga in southern Spain.   

Although Spain is the second-most popular tourist destination in the world, it has been badly hit by the epidemic with the number of deaths in the country standing at more than 24,000.

But with the epidemic in Spain peaking earlier this month, the government has laid out plans for a staged transition out of the lockdown, with the gradual opening of bars, hotels and restaurants to begin on May 11th.


And the stakes are high in a country where the tourism sector accounts for 12 percent of gross domestic product and 13 percent of employment, but which looks set to lose up to 60 percent of its annual income as a result of the lockdown, the Exceltur tourism association has warned.

Incensed by the vagueness of the government's plans to roll back the restrictions, industry professionals have made a string of proposals aimed at drawing back the tourists.

And Almuñecar is hoping to pilot some of these proposals, with its highly-popular diving clubs working on detailed plans to avoid infections being passed on through breathing equipment that is rented out to divers.

The town is also hoping to avoid crowding on its beaches with patrols by local police and civil protection officers, Barbero says. 

Paella for one

On Spain's eastern coast, the town of Gandia is looking to recruit extra lifeguards to ensure sunbathers remain at least two metres away from each other on the beach.

And it is mulling separate hours when children can go to the beach in order to avoid too much cross-over with older and more vulnerable people.   

“We're not thinking about putting up barriers… (because) you can't fence off an open space like a beach. We will keep people informed, and try ensure a sense of personal responsibility,” explains Vicent Mascarell, the town's tourism councillor.

They will also instal hand gel dispensers at beach access points, he says.    

READ MORE: Could this be the future of dining in post-coronavirus lockdown Spain?

Partitions installed in a restaurant in Madrid. Photo: AFP


Bars and restaurants are also looking to the future although for now, the country's main hostelry association has advised against the installation of perspex partitions as too costly.

“We're going to have to reduce capacity by half. A restaurant with 15 or 20 tables won't be able to have more than eight or 10 with a metre or 1.5 metres (three to five foot) between them,” says Jose Manuel Navarro, president of the town's hostelry association.

To limit the financial impact, the town hall will facilitate the expansion of pavement terraces to allow bars to set out more tables.   

Making menus available online will reduce the need to pass around physical menus.

And in a country where sharing food like paella or tapas is very popular, “we will see more individual portions,” says Mascarell.    

“It has to be done because we're facing a new reality,” he said.

Ultra-violet light

Hygiene measures will also be stepped up in hotels, in particular in Madrid, the worst-hit region, which is working on a “COVID-free hotel” quality seal.

For visitors arriving at the RoomMate Hotels chain, they will step onto bleach-infused carpeting to ensure their shoes and suitcase wheels are clean and then have their temperature taken before being handed given a mask, gloves and sanitising gel.

And at the VP hotel in Plaza de Espana in the city centre, guests will undergo a quick COVID-19 test before entering.   

“If the client tests positive, we will put them in a closed room before informing the health authorities,” the group's director Javier Perez told AFP.    

If the guests are negative, they will be able to go up to the rooftop bar and restaurant which has panoramic views over the city with a 50-euro surcharge to cover the cost of the test carried out by a private clinic.

The aim is to reassure the hotel's many guests who tend to be in their 60s and 70s.

“We already have 600 lunch and dinner bookings. The first week we reopen, we'll be completely booked,” says Perez, who says the hotel has invested 120,000 euros in ultra-violet light devices to ensure total disinfection.

“But we don't know if people are coming just to be tested or to eat!”    

The big question, however, is when the borders will be opened to international visitors.

For the moment, nothing has been decided at a European level, a government official told AFP.

By AFP's Emmanuelle Michel

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The architect trying to finish the Sagrada Familia after 138 years

Jordi Faulí is the seventh chief architect of Barcelona's iconic Sagrada Familia since Antoni Gaudi began work on the basilica in 1883, and he had been expected to oversee its long-awaited completion.

The architect trying to finish the Sagrada Familia after 138 years
Jordi Faulí is the seventh architect director of the Sagrada Familia following Antoni Gaudi and, for many, the one destined to finish it. Photo: Lluis Gene/AFP

But the pandemic has delayed efforts to finish this towering architectural masterpiece, which has been under construction for nearly 140 years, and it is no longer clear whether Faulí will still be in charge when it is finally done.

“I would like to be here for many more years, of course, but that’s in God’s hands,” says Faulí, 62, a wry smile on his lips.

He was just 31 when he joined the architectural team as a local in 1990 — the same age as Gaudi when the innovative Catalan architect began building his greatest work in the late 19th century, a project that would take up four decades of his life.

“When I arrived, only three of these columns were built and they were only 10 metres (33 feet) high,” he explains from a mezzanine in the main nave.

“I was lucky enough to design and see the construction of the entire interior, then the sacristy and now the main towers.”

When finished, the ornate cathedral which was designed by Gaudi will have 18 towers, the tallest of which will reach 172 metres into the air.

READ ALSO: Pandemic to delay completion fate for Barcelona’s Sagrada Familia

The second-highest tower, which is 138 metres tall and dedicated to the Virgin Mary, will be officially inaugurated on Wednesday with the illumination of the gigantic 5.5-tonne star crowning its highest point.

It is the tallest of the nine completed towers and the first to be inaugurated since 1976.

The long-awaited completion of Barcelona’s Sagrada Familia will no longer happen in 2026 because the coronavirus epidemic has curtailed its construction and frustrated funding, basilica officials admitted. Photo: Pau Barrena/AFP
Construction halted by Civil War

In 2019, the Sagrada Familia welcomed 4.7 million visitors, making it Barcelona’s most visited monument.

But it was forced to close in March 2020 as the Covid-19 pandemic took hold, with its doors staying shut for almost a year.

This year, there have been barely 764,000 visitors, municipal figures show.

And as entry tickets are the main source of funding for the ongoing building works, the goal of finishing the basilica by 2026 to mark the 100th anniversary of Gaudi’s death — he was run over by a tram — has been abandoned.

“We can’t give any estimate as to when it will be finished because we don’t know how visitor numbers will recover in the coming years,” Faulí says.

It is far from the first time Gaudi’s masterpiece has faced such challenges.

During the Spanish Civil War in the late 1930s, construction work stopped and many of Gaudi’s design plans and models were destroyed.

For critics, this major loss means they do not view what was built later as Gaudi’s work, despite the research carried out by his successors.

READ ALSO: Central spire will make the Sagrada Familia tallest church in the world

UNESCO, the United Nations’ cultural agency, has only granted World Heritage status to the Sagrada Familia’s crypt and one of its facades, both of which were built during Gaudi’s lifetime.

But Faulí insists the project remains faithful to what Gaudi had planned as it is based on the meticulous study of photographs, drawings and testimony from the late Modernist architect.

UNESCO, the United Nations’ cultural agency, has only granted World Heritage status to the Sagrada Familia’s crypt and one of its facades, both of which were built during Gaudi’s lifetime. Photo: Lluis Gene/AFP

Some local opposition

Nominated chief architect of the project in 2012, Faulí took over at the head of a team of 27 architects and more than 100 builders.

Today, there are five architects and some 16 builders working to finish the Sagrada Familia.

“It is a lot of responsibility because it’s an iconic project, which many people have an opinion about,” says Faulí.

Building such a vast monument which draws huge numbers of visitors is not welcomed by everyone, with some arguing that the hoards of visiting tourists are destroying the area.

Many also oppose plans to build an enormous staircase leading up to the main entrance, the construction of which will involve the demolition of several buildings, forcing hundreds to relocate.

“My life is here and they want to throw me out,” says one sign on a balcony near the Sagrada Familia.

Faulí said he understands their concerns and wants to find “fair solutions” through dialogue.

And if he could ask Gaudi one question? Faulí pauses to reflect for a few moments.

“I would ask him about his underlying intentions and what feelings he wanted to communicate through his architecture,” he says.