What parts of Spain are likely to open up to tourists first?

Although it's too early to book holidays to Spain yet, there are certain regions which are likely to be the first ones to welcome foreign visitors thanks to their low Covid-19 infection rates and push for travel corridors and vaccine passport schemes.

What parts of Spain are likely to open up to tourists first?
Don't rule out the obligation of wearing a mask on a Spanish beach this summer. Photos: AFP

The Balearic Islands

The Balearic Government is set to ask Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez to allow the Mediterranean islands to become the first region in the country to test the Covid-19 vaccine passport, if and when it has been authorised by the European Union.

Tourism-related businesses in the Balearics are currently almost entirely closed and the forecast points to little change by Easter, with May predicted to be the month when the islands’ all-important tourism sector starts to take off in line with a more advanced vaccination campaign in Spain and abroad.

Bars and restaurants are also currently shut on Majorca, Ibiza and Formentera with the exception of Menorca, but there is little to suggest that if hotels reopen in May bars and restaurants won’t follow suit as well (although capacity restrictions are likely to apply).

There are differences in opinion among the 27 Member states over whether the vaccine passport is discriminatory for those who haven’t received the inoculation yet as it could mean less travel options for them.

But the Balearic government wouldn’t want the vaccine passport to be the only option to allow travel to the Mediterranean holiday islands.

They’re looking to welcome tourists who haven’t been vaccinated yet and would want the vaccine passport or certificate to be an alternative or add-on to a negative PCR or antigen test.

“We want to be the first destination where it is authorised”, Balearic Minister of Economy and Tourism Iago Negueruela said on Friday.

On Monday Spain’s Tourism Minister Reyes Maroto confirmed that Baleares already has a protocol in place for the islands to adopt a safe travel corridor with other countries, but on this occasion the Covid vaccine passport would be incorporated into the strategy.

As of February 22, the Covid-19 infection rate on the islands is around 95 per 100,000, far below the national average of 251 per 100,000 and the third lowest regional infection rate only behind Extremadura and the Canary Islands.

The Canary Islands

Although it seems that the Balearics will be the first to pilot test the vaccine passport scheme in Spain this year, Spanish Tourism Minister Reyes Maroto has also stressed that the same protocols have already been approved by her department for the Canary Islands.

The Atlantic archipelago, which is a two-and-a-half hour flight away from Madrid off the coast of Western Sahara, has maintained the lowest infection rate of all regions in Spain throughout the pandemic, their isolated location allowing them to control infections more easily.

“It’s necessary to find the mechanisms so that those who are vaccinated can travel,” Canary President Ángel Víctor Torres said about his regional government’s talks over the Covid vaccine passport.

In another interview with online daily El Español, Torres suggested that the vaccine passport should be “reinforced” with an antigen test as well as an extra means of safety.

Some voices in his government would rather wait for more information to clarify if the vaccine passports are the safest option for the islands, or if the focus should instead be first on inoculating as many of the archipelago’s 2 million inhabitants.

The tiny Canary island of La Gomera has had one of the lowest number of Covid infections in all of Europe. 

The Canaries, which is made up of eight islands, are still currently receiving international tourists with a negative PCR (those who can get a flight or whose home country restrictions allow them to).

Some of the islands’ hotels are still operational and the hospitality industry is almost fully open but with restrictions.

Visitor numbers are however nowhere near what they were in pre-pandemic times, and keeping in mind that tourism is responsible for 40 percent of jobs and 35 percent of GDP on the islands, it seems unlikely that the Canary government won’t push for mass tourism by the summer, and adopt every measure possible including travel corridors and vaccine certificates.

What about Spain’s other coastal regions?

Tourism Minister Reyes Maroto told journalists on Monday that her government is also preparing for safe travel corridors and vaccine passport schemes to be adopted in Spain’s other popular coastal regions such as Valencia, Catalonia and Andalusia.

These three regions used to receive more visitors than Spain’s two archipelagos but they have recorded higher infection rates throughout the pandemic.

It could mean that the UK, Germany, Sweden and Spain’s other main tourism markets are reluctant to agree to safe travel corridors with them, or that the lack of regional border closures with the rest of mainland Spain dissuades these nations from allowing travel to them.

Last year, these safe flight routes that were established between some locations in Spain and Europe, were constantly marred by problems as soon as infections went up on either side, meaning they had fairly limited success overall for Spain’s tourism industry.

By the summer of 2021, or perhaps earlier, this could be a very different story if both Spain – and the countries that provide most of its foreign visitors – have managed to vaccinate a large percentage of their populations against Covid-19.



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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.