Imserso would normally operate between late October and early April. | Josep Bagur Gomila


In this column last week, I concluded by mentioning that Juan Molas, the president of the Mesa del Turismo organisation of leading figures in Spain’s tourism industry, had raised the possibility of Imserso offering something of a salvation for this summer’s tourism.
Imserso, the programme of holidays for Spanish pensioners which is subsidised by the Spanish government and the ministry for social rights in particular (Imserso stands for the Instituto de Mayores y Servicios Sociales), would normally operate between - at the most - late October and early April. Molas was suggesting that the scheme could be adopted in the summer a) because of fears about the general loss of tourism and b) because the client base (pensioners) will almost certainly all have been vaccinated.

The Imserso programme for the 2020-2021 low season was scrapped for the opposite reason. While pensioners may now become the most protected group, they have been the most vulnerable. The thinking, Molas’s thinking, makes some sense, but it also points to the tourism industry’s desperation. For years, the hotel sector has been critical of Imserso because it is barely profitable. What it receives from the government has amounted to 22 euros per day per person (all inclusive).

The average daily rates (ADR) for hotels in Spain, according to figures from the Statista website for August 2020, were 193.75 euros (five star), 110.66 euros (four star) and 87.08 euros for three star. ADR is the measure of the average income per occupied room over a given time period. As can be seen, the best that a hotel can expect for two people occupying a room under Imserso is roughly 50% of the typical ADR average for a three star, although calculation of profitability will depend on services supplied, e.g. all inclusive or other types of offer.

Pre-Covid, such was the hoteliers’ dissatisfaction with Imserso that they regularly pulled out. One group in Mallorca which didn’t - the name of which I won’t mention - said that it was basically offering a social service. Given that the holidays come under the social services institute, the assessment was pretty accurate. Nevertheless, Imserso did offer the opportunity to keep open during the winter, even if the profit was minimal. Right now, hoteliers would give their right arms to be open at any time, and the Imserso payment to hoteliers - meagre though it is - would appear like riches when occupancy levels have plummeted so much that most hotels must surely be operating at a loss.

Imserso is a peculiarly Spanish phenomenon, as is the reporting of it. When the first pensioners of the season arrive in Mallorca, it’s like the fuss paid to the first day of the new school year. Wholly disproportionate, and especially so as the general benefit from Imserso is low. Other than hoteliers and their paltry returns, sectors deriving some advantage are travel agents, airlines, coach operators and a few attractions. Again, these would all welcome any business at present.

But Imserso as a source of salvation for the summer? It is, I’m afraid, a scraping of the barrel for beggars who can’t be so choosy as to spurn the opportunity. Not, however, that they are likely to be presented with it anyway; they not only including hotel concerns with the Mesa del Turismo but also the CEHAT national confederation of hotels.

The tourism minister, Reyes Maroto, has dashed their hopes. The government’s initial plan for Imserso this year is to begin in September, so long as the vaccination programme proceeds as expected. “Taking into account that the elderly will be the first to be vaccinated, we could have a safety element (the vaccine) to be able to offer these trips.”

This was an odd statement by a minister who has also spoken up the chances of national tourism at Easter.

If the vaccination goes to plan, then the elderly will have been vaccinated well before September; many of them quite possibly by Easter. Her observation about Imserso didn’t make much sense, and where Luis Alberto Barriga, the director-general of Imserso was concerned, the holiday programme may not start in September anyway.

Is there some internal government coalition politics at play in this? Barriga was appointed by the social rights minister, the second deputy prime minister, Pablo Iglesias of Podemos (Maroto is from PSOE). Barriga doesn’t actually have a political affiliation to Podemos, but these politics can’t be completely ruled out.

He has said that work is being done on redesigning the Imserso programme, so it doesn’t appear as if he’s in any mad hurry to launch the next one. But what sort of redesign? Is it not somewhat strange to have a social services department in charge of what is essentially a tourism matter? There again, even if Imserso were under the tourism ministry, there wouldn’t be a programme for the summer, as Maroto has said there won’t be.

The hoteliers should be saving their prayers for something more substantial. Imserso is no solution for the summer. And well they know that it isn’t.

“As soon as possible” after “a disastrous 2020”

Each week passes and it is much the same story - a mix of forecasts, pessimism and the CEHAT hotels confederation once more demanding ERTE till the end of the year and direct aid from the Spanish government. Jorge Marichal, the CEHAT president, restated these demands again on Wednesday, reacting to the tourism figures for 2020 - “a disastrous 2020”.

EasyJet say that 65% of Europeans have already booked a flight or intend to for this year. CEO Johan Lundgren says that “we know there is pent-up demand, we see it every time restrictions are lifted, and our survey further underlines people’s interest in travelling as soon as possible”.

Which is no doubt true, but it is the “as soon as possible” that is so elusive. Javier Piñanes, the Turespaña representative in London - he is the director of the Spanish tourism bureau in the UK - says that the national agency is ready to go with a huge promotional campaign, a public-private collaboration with regional governments, business associations and hoteliers. There will be promotional events in the UK, but “not at the moment”. In fact, “we will still have to wait some months”.

And over the course of some months, there will need to be very significant improvements to the health data. While the Balearic tourism minister, Iago Negueruela, may be dreaming of safe corridors, the EU member states agreed on Tuesday that lifting of travel restrictions will be subject to various epidemiological criteria. For travellers from “third countries” where “a more worrisome mutation” has been detected, contemplating the lifting of restrictions will, among other things, require that there are no more than 25 new cases per 100,000 over a 14-day period. The UK, it shouldn’t be forgotten, is now a third country. The vaccines can’t come quick enough, can they, along with proof of their efficacy.