So that’s that, then. Prime Minister Sánchez told a World Tourism Organization executive council meeting on Tuesday that once seventy per cent of Spain’s population has been vaccinated, the country will be “better prepared” for receiving foreign tourists. Great. Except that this won’t be, according to the prime minister, until the end of the summer, a vague enough timeframe, but let’s call it September or October; July and August it isn’t.
The reaction was as would have been expected. The Mallorca Hoteliers Federation described Sánchez’s statement as “unacceptable”. It was damaging to the tourism industry, to Spain’s image and to the recovery of tourism. And central to this reaction was the criticism of the slowness of the vaccination programme, which Sánchez had said was the ninth best in the world. We’ll have to take his word for that.
Curiously enough and only days before, the health minister, Salvador Illa, had suggested that 70% of the population would be vaccinated before the summer, which was also suitably vague. He could have meant June and probably did. So had the prime minister got his befores and afters muddled up, or had the health minister? Either way, let’s say that there wasn’t wholly consistent messaging.
Did Sánchez really mean to indicate that there wouldn’t be (or couldn’t be) foreign tourism until the end of the summer? This is how his words have been interpreted, but it should be noted that he said “better prepared”. He didn’t say that Spain would be “unprepared” before whenever he considers the end of summer to be. Rather, the vaccination will, by then, have improved the situation. So no, I don’t think one can infer that there will be no tourism until September or that he had meant this, but the hoteliers were nevertheless right to chastise the prime minister for his choice of words.
In Mallorca, as everywhere else in Spain, there is no great expectation for tourism before June. Illa may have been correct, in which case Spain will be super better prepared by the end of summer. But everyone could really do with a bit more clarity. Or is this too much to expect? Sadly, it may well be.
It has been reported that the government is anticipating there being another six “tough months”. Four of the six have therefore been partially catered for by the extension to ERTE to the end of May. Before the latest negotiations for an extension, I felt sure that the government was holding back by not committing to a longer extension (as had been called for by business associations). It will want to see how things go, but then it holds in its hands - up to a point - the wherewithal to make things go well. The supply of vaccine is all important, and Illa observed earlier this week that a “bottleneck” with getting vaccine into arms was due to delivery and not to any failing of Spanish logistics or health service capability. Meanwhile, the CEO of Melía, Gabriel Escarrer, was once more crying - words to this effect - for God’s sake get on with a mass vaccination campaign.
Politicians’ words do require some interpretation, as with those uttered by Pedro Sánchez, and so when the Balearic health minister, Patricia Gómez, lets it be known via the media that she has been making “very clear” demands of the Spanish government, these have to be viewed as playing to a domestic Balearic audience. In this instance, it was a tourism industry audience above all.
At Wednesday’s meeting of the Inter-Territorial Council for the National Health System, Gómez was very clearly demanding that vaccination priority be given to regions that have suffered most through the loss of their tourism activity. The Balearic Islands have lost more than any other, so the very clear demand is for vaccination before the summer. Less clear was what sort of percentage of the population she had in mind.
Might priority be given? The health crisis has been characterised by a Spanish government Three Musketeers philosophy - all for one and one for all - but it hasn’t entirely stuck to this. The de-escalation from the original state of alarm did, for example, favour certain regions over others, but this was on account of incidence of the virus, not for other motives. I would doubt that Sánchez would wish to upset some regions by prioritising others on tourism grounds.
While Gómez is making her very clear demands, the tourism minister, Iago Negueruela, is seemingly reinventing the tourism pilot plan of last June. The government therefore wishes to demonstrate that it is doing something, this something being no less than anyone would expect it to and which all other governments are doubtless doing - which is to reactivate the protocols for safe travel and safe tourism.
It isn’t a case of having a pilot plan, but of having a plan, one that embraces the vaccine. In this regard, it is hard to see how there can be any abandonment of protocols or loosening of measures. Social distancing and all the rest will still be needed, at least until there is evidence as to the impact of the vaccine and knowledge has been gathered regarding virus transmission and immunity. By 2022, with any luck, the measures can be relaxed. But not this summer, and one dearly hopes that Mallorca is in a position to receive foreign tourists before the summer and not at summer’s end.
What Sánchez was really saying
The prime minister’s speech on Tuesday has to be considered in the context of his audience. He may have upset the tourism industry with some ill-chosen words, but I very much doubt that these were his principal concern. The Sánchez presentation was otherwise one that would have been music to the ears of the World Tourism Organization, whose mission is that of sustainable tourism.
Accordingly, his focus was on sustainable development goals, digitalisation, etc., all of this also being linked to how European recovery funds are to be spent. The prime minister expanded on this at a separate gathering - a forum about these funds that was co-organised by the consultants KPMG, who are the same consultants that the Balearic government has drafted in to advise on European funds.
The “tourism of the future”, as Sánchez referred to it, is at the heart of government tourism policy. While the tourism industry is in general agreement, this policy doesn’t address the here and now and what exactly the government is doing to save so many businesses and jobs. It’s all well and good banging on about the future when there is a present to deal with.