Passengers wearing facemasks wait to check-in at an Air Europa counter at Adolfo Suarez Barajas airport amid the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic in Madrid

Passengers wearing face masks wait to check-in at an Air Europa counter at Adolfo Suarez Barajas airport amid the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic in Madrid.

18-12-2020SUSANA VERA

Several months ago, Spain’s employment minister, Yolanda Díaz, suggested that there would not be a reactivation of tourism until the end of the year. The tourism industry was horrified. It took umbrage at what it perceived to be another pronouncement by a Unidas Podemos politician that undermined the industry.

As things have turned out, Díaz was wrong on two counts. There was a reactivation - partial, short-lived - and we are now at the end of the year with tourism at a virtual standstill. If nothing else, experience over the past months should have convinced politicians and others that predictions regarding tourism are futile. The circumstances changed rapidly over the summer and they continue to change rapidly.

As well as pointless forecasts, there is the shambles of regulation. If any more proof were required of the chaotic situations that have arisen, we need look no further than at what has been happening in the Canaries. The regional government, desperate to ensure its high season, decreed that rapid antigen tests (with negative results) would be permissible for foreign tourists entering the islands. The justification for this decree was that the government in the Canaries maintained that it has powers to determine travel regulations under the terms of the current state of alarm’s devolved responsibilities. Meanwhile, for foreign tourists arriving anywhere else in Spain, a negative PCR test result is required; the Spanish government has said so.

The view in the Canaries is that regional regulations countermand those of Madrid, and the Canarian government may well be correct. The national ministry of health has issued neither an explicit endorsement nor denial of the Canaries decree. With everyone craving certainty, one way or the other, this institutional discrepancy is bizarre. Madrid’s apparent reluctance to say anything definitive may be due to an appreciation of the importance of winter tourism to the Canaries, but giving implicit authorisation (through silence) merely adds to further confusion.

The Canaries have just suffered two blows - the UK’s decision to remove the islands from the list of safe destination and the German government’s advice against travel. While travel from Germany isn’t prohibited, it is necessary for people returning to quarantine unless they can produce evidence of a negative test. This hasn’t stopped German tour operators offering holidays in the Canaries, but only one of them, Tui, has informed travellers that there is the option of an antigen test prior to travel. All other tour operators are sticking with the Spanish government’s regulation.

It is a ludicrous situation, but one to which we have become accustomed, rather as we have with forecasts and their apparent futility.

The politics of safe corridors

Jorge Marichal, the president of the CEHAT national confederation of hotels, has grown in stature during the crisis. The tourism industry has been impressed by the pressure he has been keeping up on various fronts, for example ERTE, financial aid, and tests for travellers. He is also the president of Ashotel, the hotel association for Tenerife, La Palma, La Gomera and El Hierro, and has been as active as any other hotelier leader in seeking to ensure as much safe travel as possible.

Admirable though Marichal is, he did - in my opinion - rather let himself down following the UK withdrawal of the Canaries from the list of tourist corridors. It was understandable that he should observe that this decision would “ruin all the expectations that the tourism sector had for the Christmas season”. It was also perhaps understandable that he should feel that this decision was not based on objective Covid criteria and was instead driven by political motives. Understandable, as frustration eventually leads to lashing out; understandable but, I believe, incorrect.

Marichal was essentially echoing views expressed by the likes of Meliá’s Gabriel Escarrer in the summer. The UK’s quarantine requirement and the removal of the Balearics and then the Canaries from the list of safe corridor destinations were political. The politics of the summer, it was felt, were those to do with bolstering the domestic UK tourism economy through staycations. There may have been some truth to this and it did seem as if the UK had been precipitous in striking the Balearics off the list. However, in hardly any time the cases started to rise in the Balearics and the UK decision began to look far more like one based on Covid objectivity.

The politics of the winter, where Marichal is concerned, are those of geopolitics, of “strategic politics in Europe-UK relations”. Was he right? I don’t think so, and the German government’s travel advice, which followed soon after, did somewhat undermine his analysis. Frustration can boil over.

Should we be concerned about Tui?

The Majorca Hoteliers Federation’s annual gathering of representatives from Spain’s overseas tourism bureaus is normally an occasion for analyses of the plus or minus percentage points here or there: Germany’s looking the good, the UK less so, Sweden is complicated.

These analyses are typically based on the state of individual economies, Brexit notwithstanding. The assessments made this year (earlier this week) took these factors into account, but there was of course more to consider. Covid has shaken airlines and tour operators to their very cores, and one of these tour operators was something of a cause for concern - the biggest of them all, Tui.

A day after the federation’s seminar, Tui set out its prospects for 2021. It expects a “strong summer” for Spain and Greece. There will once more be high demand for holidays in the Mediterranean, but there were caveats - a vaccine and better test options will provide the necessary safety for travel; there will also be high demand for staycations.

Tui was perhaps reacting to what had been observed during the hoteliers federation’s seminar. The director of Turespaña in Berlin, Arturo Ortiz, had drawn attention to the huge debt that Tui has accumulated - 4,800 million euros plus millions of euros interest that it hasn’t started to repay. He didn’t envisage bankruptcy but because Tui is so in hock to the German government, he referred to it surviving with the government holding some 25% and it becoming a “small online agency”.

The seminar contrasted the Tui situation with that of Jet2. Carlos Ruiz, Ortiz’s counterpart in London, said that Jet2 doesn’t have Tui’s debt. It is a “well-managed company that is going to benefit from the crisis”.

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