€8.7 billion lost: Can Spain’s tourism sector survive latest blow?

As one of the world's top tourist destinations, Spain was hoping to salvage the summer by billing itself as a safe haven from the pandemic but with infections surging, all bets are off.

€8.7 billion lost: Can Spain's tourism sector survive latest blow?
Tourists sunbathe at Palmanova Beach on the Island of Mallorca on July 27, 2020. AFP

Britain's decision late Saturday to impose quarantine on all travellers coming from Spain represents a huge setback — British tourists are the largest national group of visitors, with 18 million of them taking a Spanish 
holiday in 2019. 

“It's a very tough blow” given that the tourist sector “had hoped to be able to turn things around in August,” Ximo Puig, the Valencian regional president told Cadena Ser radio. 

For some resorts like Benidorm, British tourists constitute 40 percent of visitors.

The announcement was terrible news for the embattled sector, which had hoped the summer months would help it claw back some of the colossal losses incurred through months of lockdown.

“We'd had a good feeling about the coming weeks with reservations picking up and although we were far from the norm for this time of year, we were hoping things would get back to normal by September or October,” the HOSBEC regional hotels association said.

“There have already been cancellations and more are expected. Nobody is going to come here for a week's holiday and then spend 14 days shut away when they get back home,” said Emilio Gallego, secretary general of Spain's hotels association. 

Tourists walk past closed restaurants near Magaluf Beach on the Island of Mallorca on July 27, 2020. AFP

The Exceltur tourism association estimates Britain's quarantine move could cost up to 8.7 billion euros in August and September, a major hit to a sector whose turnover had already been expected to halve this year.

Conscious of the impact on a sector that accounts for 12 percent of GDP and 13 percent of employment, Madrid has sought to secure an exemption for the Canary Islands or the Balearic Isles. 

Although TUI, Britain's biggest tour operator, cancelled all holidays to mainland Spain, it has said it will continue holidays to the Canaries or Balearics where COVID-19 cases are markedly lower.

“I don't think that we have uncontrolled transmission of the virus in Spain right now,” said Fernando Simon, the health ministry's emergencies director, indicating there were areas “where it is hardly circulating” such as the 
Balearic and Canary Islands.

From a health perspective, the quarantine “benefits us in a certain way because it discourages people from travelling from the United Kingdom” where the virus is also still circulating, he said.

'A safe destination' 

Spain worked hard to burnish its image as a safe destination, with resorts implementing widespread measures, among them social distancing on the sand and around pools, and safe spacing within bars and restaurants.

But industry insiders have watched with concern as new infections have risen, with the figure tripling in two weeks, government figures show.

Over the past 14 days, Spain has seen 40 new cases per 100,000 inhabitants, compared with 15 in Britain and France and eight in Germany, according to an AFP calculation based on official figures.

British tourists wait to check in for a flight to London at the airport in Palma de Mallorca on July 27, 2020.AFP

In terms of deaths, however, Spain has recorded just 26 in the past fortnight, far behind Britain's 816.

Michael Ryan, the World Health Organization's emergencies director, told reporters the situation in Spain was “nowhere close” to what it was before and that Madrid had developed a “very sensitive surveillance system”.

“It will take a number of days or weeks for us to see what is the future in Spain, but we trust that with this open approach, with this sensitive surveillance, with the sustained testing… we will see these clusters come under control in due course.”

The situation varies hugely between regions, with Aragon and Catalonia in the northeast counting the highest number of new cases, notably in agricultural areas, while in Andalusia and Valencia, new infections were far fewer.

Although France on Friday advised against travelling to Catalonia, regional president Quim Torra insisted Monday that the Costa Brava and the Costa Dorada “remain unaffected and people can travel there safely”.

The situation in metropolitan Barcelona and Lerida, however, remains “critical”, with residents ordered to stay at home.

Denouncing the situation as “unjust.. and totally illogical”, the Spanish Confederation of Hotels and Tourist Accommodation (CEHAT) insisted its establishments had “the strictest protocols in Europe”.

It also asked that tourists be tested before travelling and again before going home to avoid the need for quarantine.

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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.