Antonio Ramirez, 55, a waiter of a hotel restaurant currently unemployed as the hotel closed due to the COVID-19 pandemic, poses for a photograph on a beach, amid the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) outbreak, in Benalmadena | JON NAZCA


After more than a year on furlough, Antonio Ramirez, a waiter in Benalmadena on Spain's Costa del Sol, is struggling to make ends meet. He hopes a revival in summer tourism will let him get back to work but the outlook remains uncertain.

"It's awful to see all the hotels closed and the boardwalk all empty," said Ramirez, 55, who has been supported by the government's ERTE furlough scheme since the COVID-19 pandemic struck in March 2020.

While foreign tourism to Spain - the world's second most visited country before the pandemic - has begun a tentative rebound after plummeting 80% last year, arrivals remain at a fraction of 2019 levels, complicating the recovery of an economy that relied on tourism for 12% of GDP before COVID.

"If the situation keeps on like this, I won't be able to last much longer," Ramirez said. He has three children and his wife earns only a modest income cleaning houses.

Activity in Benalmadena has picked up slightly in the past weeks thanks to a resurgence in domestic tourism and Ramirez is optimistic the 400-bed hotel where he used to work will call him back in July.

"The day I get that call I will be very happy," he said.

But locals cannot fill the gap left by international travellers. Just over half of the Costa del Sol's 193 hotels are open, according to the region's AEHCOS hoteliers association.

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A mandatory quarantine on returning Britons, who usually make up over a quarter of guests to the region, has dissuaded many, and Spain's plan to entice foreign visitors by letting in fully-vaccinated people from all over the world from June 7 has had limited impact.

"There's no point in opening borders if our main market countries do not open them as well," said AEHCOS Vice-President Javier Hernandez.

Pointing to uncertainty over new variants of the virus, the Bank of Spain has warned the summer will be far from normal and a full recovery is unlikely until 2023.

Nevertheless, a few hundred kilometres away in Madrid, which is less reliant on foreign tourism, the situation is far rosier.

"With the reservations we have on the books we know it's going to be a good summer," said Gonzalo Baselga, sales manager at the 27-floor RIU hotel, which dominates the city's skyline and is running at 60%-70% occupancy, mostly from domestic visitors.

Data from booking platform eDreams showed July and August hotel reservations across Spain were up almost four-fold from 2020's lows, with Madrid among the most popular destinations.

In another positive sign, TUI's Mein Schiff 2 cruise liner arrived in Malaga on Tuesday, the first such ship to dock at a Spanish port since they were banned a year ago. Passengers disembarked in small groups to minimise the risk of infection while touring the city.