Spain’s Costa del Sol braces for tourists’ return, but will they come?

The beach at Torremolinos is nearly empty but this southern Spanish resort is gearing up for what it hopes will be a busy summer and a return of "normality".

Spain's Costa del Sol braces for tourists' return, but will they come?
Torremolinos. Photo: Camille Brodard / Unsplash

On Monday Spain is due to reopen its borders to travellers who have been vaccinated against Covid-19. 

The latest reports say that the June 7th entry date for vaccinated travellers from around the world will be included in a separate BOE state bulletin, which according to government sources will, in theory, be published on Saturday, June 5th, just 48 hours before it comes into effect.

READ ALSO: UPDATE: Has Spain backtracked on its plan to welcome all vaccinated tourists in June 2021?

Already all along the promenade in Torremolinos, hotels and restaurants are reopening or racing to refurbish in anticipation.

“We are already seeing something of a recovery with national clients,” said Orlando Perez, assistant manager of the seafront Melia Costa del Sol hotel which opened its doors on Tuesday June 1st, after being closed for nine months.

With bookings on the rise, this 540-room hotel will next week see its occupancy rate rising to 35 percent.

It’s a long way from the 90 percent occupancy rate of the summer before the pandemic, but like other Spanish hoteliers, Perez is betting the numbers will soar as vaccination programmes in key markets take hold and travel restrictions are further eased.

And the fact that the EU’s vaccine passport will be in place by July 1st, further freeing up travel within the bloc, has added to the sense of optimism.

READ ALSO: What’s the latest on how the EU’s ‘Covid passports’ will work for travellers?

Costa del Sol gets ready for the return of tourism. Photo: JAIME REINA / AFP

As the world’s second-most popular tourist destination, Spain is expecting to welcome 45 million foreign tourists this year – more than twice the 19 million who visited in 2020 when the global tourism sector was battered by the pandemic.

For Spain, it was the lowest figure since the late 1960s. And the impact can be clearly seen in neighbourhoods further from the beachfront, where it’s easier to find boarded-up shops and hotels.

A lot of uncertainty

As the “tourist hub” of Spain’s southern Costa del Sol, Torremolinos “totally depends on the sector”, city mayor Jose Ortiz told AFP.

Although the pandemic delivered the “harshest blow the city has ever experienced”, Ortiz is hoping tourism activity could reach half of its pre-pandemic levels in June and July.

Domestic tourists have already started coming back since the state of alarm, which restricted inter-regional travel, was lifted in early May.

Before the pandemic, Spaniards accounted for half of the million or so annual visitors to Torremolinos, a city of around 68,000 people.

But one key reason for concern remains. Tourists from Britain, who normally make up a third of visitors to
Torremolinos, are still required to quarantine and take PCR tests on their return home from visiting Spain, which puts many off.

“For some hotels, the British market accounts for 70 percent of all international tourists,” said Javier Hernandez, vice-president of the Costa del Sol‘s Association of Hotel Entrepreneurs. “There is still a lot of uncertainty.”

And Britain’s decision on Thursday to keep Spain off its ‘green list’ of safe countries has caused further angst, with the Exceltur tourism association describing it as “bad news”.

READ ALSO: OFFICIAL: UK keeps all of Spain on its ‘amber’ travel list until late June

The UK travel list is up for review in another three weeks’ time.

Torremolinos gets ready to welcome tourists back. Photo: JOSE JORDAN / AFP

Security above all

Even so, there is optimism on the seafront among those working in the tourism sector.

“Things are starting to move again,” said Cristian Martin, 24, who started as a waiter at Pizza Mare three weeks ago. “We’re hoping that by mid-June and July things will start getting back to normal a bit more,” he smiled.

At the Eden Beach Club, groups of people are relaxing in hammocks, sipping mojitos.

“There are very good prospects for the summer, we have been closed but it looks like it’s going to be a good one,” said club owner Antonio Dominguez, quickly reminding a customer to put on his face mask to go to the bathroom.

The venue has also reduced capacity and ensured tables are far apart under its virus protocol.

Hotels have also taken steps to ensure guests have a safe stay. At the Melia, rooms are disinfected and are ventilated for 24 hours between guests and hand gel dispensers are everywhere.

“Security above all,” said Perez, the assistant manager.

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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.