For all the fine words uttered by Pedro Sánchez about the vital role of the tourism industry, for all the aid that has been flowing in the tourism industry’s direction (ERTE, ICO loans, for example), for all the promise of European funds, the industry is taking its gloves off and condemning the government.
A few days ago, travel agents responded to statements made by the tourism minister Reyes Maroto in a TV interview. She spoke, as she has on numerous occasions, about support from the government which is mobilising 25,000 million euros and strengthening protection for the industry, especially travel agencies and transport companies. She also mentioned the 3,400 million euros in direct aid over three years that will come from European funds - “the largest public investment that a government has made for tourism”.
The response was to accuse Maroto of lying. Apart from ICO loans, which have to be repaid, there has been no real aid for travel agencies. There are 70,000 of them, and they are at the bottom of the heap. Meanwhile, the government can bail out a large company like Globalia (Air Europa).
The travel agencies’ views were moderate by comparison with what has followed since. In the Canaries, where there have been all sorts of fears about the winter season (high season in the Canaries), hotel federations and tourism industry employers have combined in warning that all that may be left for them will be to take to the streets and protest. There has been “shameful inaction” on behalf of the government, and the industry in the Canaries is calling on the regional government to seek the necessary powers to allow antigen testing for passengers arriving in the Canaries.
That is easier said than done, given that the authority is the Spanish government, but the industry in the Canaries reckons that Pedro Sánchez had indicated that antigen tests would be authorised. In addressing an international congress in La Palma on Monday, he referred to restarting safe international travel being a priority. For this, “new tools such as diagnostic tests that are more accessible” should be used.
But this only seemed to be an admission that there is an alternative to PCR tests, the government itself having only recently said that antigen tests lack the degree of sensitivity of PCR tests, which is why it has decided against them for foreign passengers. The tourism industry representatives clearly felt there was more to what Sánchez had to say, and they have stressed that if controls with antigen tests aren’t permitted shortly, they will start protesting.
A further source of discontent was the fact that this congress in La Palma focused most of its attention on how European funds are to be used for the future of tourism - sustainability and modernisation. This was all well and good, but there are some pressing concerns right now, and tests are most certainly one of them. The participants at the congress were also a “disappointment”. There were representatives from the government, the UN World Tourism Organisation and the World Travel and Tourism Council, but there was no one from Spanish tourism business associations.
There is a feeling that the government is hiding behind the European Commission, Reyes Maroto having stated at the La Palma congress that the commission only permits PCR tests for international travel. While this may be the case, the commission has added its own weight behind antigen tests by recommending that member states adopt them in order to aid freedom of movement . However, recommending is different to commanding.
The clamour for antigen tests is not only being heard in the Canaries. It is coming, for instance, from the Cehat national confederation of hotels, the national association for specialist travel agencies and the guild of European business travel agents as well as from certain airlines. Meanwhile, and adding to the confusion and speculation - neither of which is very far from the surface at present - there have been reports in the UK that the Spanish health ministry and the Canarian government will be reaching an agreement whereby antigen tests rather than PCRs will be permitted for travel from risk zones.
It is difficult to see how the government could adopt a testing policy for one region and not others, and it doesn’t appear to be about to. But who can say, given the way in which regulations can shift at short notice. The Madrid attitude is echoed by what the Balearic tourism minister, Iago Negueruela, has had to say. Speaking on Wednesday, he expressed hope that rapid antigen tests could be used more widely but stated that there was “no rush”. For Negueruela, “strategies that favour containment (of the virus) are essential”, and these - for now - include PCRs. “We all agree that we have to improve our epidemiological levels.
We are not at an optimal level. Right now, we could not open safe corridors, which would be one of the principal requirements for markets such as Germany.”
The Balearics are therefore not for changing, although it can be said that there is no rush because the Balearics do not get the sort of winter tourism of other regions. But there is a dynamic for change within the tourism industry and not only in the Canaries - Valencia (Benidorm and all) is another region. Will the industry be taking to the streets if it doesn’t get the change?
The ongoing VAT tourist rate argument
The government, and Reyes Maroto in particular, is certainly not flavour of the week with Spain’s tourism industry. Another point of disagreement concerns the ten per cent tourist rate of IVA (VAT). Maroto recently indicated that the government was open to considering a reduction, something that the industry has also been clamouring for. But in an interview earlier this week, she observed that lowering the tourist rate of VAT would not stimulate demand, it would only benefit businesses’ “income statements”.
This went down like a lead balloon, her most severe critics accusing her of being ignorant of how economies work and indeed of how the accounting for VAT works. In her defence, I can understand the argument about stimulating demand up to a point insofar as VAT is often a tax that is invisible to the consumer.
Decisions are therefore not guided by seeing that additional element in the final price calculation. But decisions are influenced by price, whether there is awareness of VAT or not. If they weren’t, then why have various other governments chosen to cut VAT?