Secretary of state for tourism Fernando Valdés talks to Ben Ireland
“In every single data or variable we look at, we find decreases we’ve never seen before. It’s the largest impact on the tourism sector that we can recall in recent history.”
Any other year, that might be a pretty bold statement. Spain’s secretary of state for tourism Fernando Valdés puts is bluntly and honestly, and few will be surprised to hear it.
Spain welcomed 84 million international visitors in 2019. That was down by 75% in the first nine months of 2020 (including a time before Covid was a pandemic), and arrivals from the UK were down 80%. Spain is the biggest outbound market for the UK travel industry.
But, as Valdés points out: “Spain is no different to other countries. The impact on tourism worldwide is shared. It’s true that Spain’s dependence on tourism is greater than some economies, but we face the same figures as other countries because of Covid.
“The pandemic has impacted the two key elements of the tourism experience: confidence and mobility.”
With a travel corridor back in place between the UK and the Canary Islands from the end of the current England-wide lockdown, Valdés sees the archipelago as the best shot for Spain, and Europe, for a winter season.
Noting it has “one of the lowest rates” of Covid infection, with “authorities doing a great job in keeping it down”, he pointed to a pan-European Canary Islands campaign promising ‘The Warmest Welcome Ever’ to help build back some of the lost confidence in travel.
“We hope to have some winter season,” Valdés says. “But I can’t say right now what it will be.” He stressed this is an unprecedented situation, but was upbeat about a spike in recent web searches for the Canary Islands. The same thing happened in the summer when Brits were briefly allowed to travel to Spain.
The success of Spain’s recovery will hinge on the rollout of Covid-19 vaccines, Valdés stressed. And he believes that recent developments from Pfizer, Moderna and Oxford/AstraZeneca mean “we can now scratch some dates on the calendar. We can look forward and have some light at the end of the tunnel.”
Testing over quarantine
Until a vaccine is rolled out far and wide, Valdés’ hopes are pinned on a move to pre-departure testing. But he reports progress with the UK, and Germany, Spain’s two biggest inbound markets. An “exceptional relationship” with the British ambassador to Spain, Hugh Elliott, helps.
“Pre-departure testing has to be put in place as a replacement for quarantine,” says Valdés. “Even though we are going to have a vaccine next year, we still have to cope with the virus for the next months.”
He is calling on the UK and Germany to pilot a pre-departure testing regime for two months, starting from December 15, and at first only to the Canary Islands. Talks are ongoing.
Noting that PCR tests, which require lab analysis and can take two days, and cost around £120, are the current standard for Covid testing for travel, he says: “We have to move forward to be more agile and put in place measures that are more flexible, more cheap and more accessible to the population. It has to change.”
He predicts a move towards some form of rapid diagnostic testing “within weeks, not months” and says “the science is moving very fast” with health officials in Spain improving sensitivity and reliability of rapid tests “every week”.
“A pilot gives us a window of opportunity,” he says, suggesting it could run for two months from December 15 to February 15.
“Right now it’s all about [creating] confidence [to travel],” he adds. “A pilot would give confidence to tourists, operators and agents.”
But Valdés accepts the UK, and Germany, will also be talking to other destinations about testing requirements and may be hesitant to show favour to one destination such as the Canaries: “We are talking, we are making steps, but they are maybe smaller than the ones I would like,” he says. “I know it’s not very easy to move as fast as I would like.”
As it stands, however, Valdés sees quarantine restrictions as a barrier to any sizeable market returning, even if it is for five days rather than 14.
“People don’t want any restrictions,” he says. “It doesn’t make any sense to have an eight-day package and spend 14 days in quarantine at home. Obviously five days is better than 14 but quarantine is not the right approach to international mobility. Rapid tests now are very sensitive and reliable. We need to stress the reliability of these tests.”
British market prospects
With progress to be made on testing and vaccines, Valdés believes Spain to have “a good summer season” in 2021.
“I don’t think it will be as huge as 2019,” he quickly caveats, noting challenges in the return of visitors from long-haul markets and pointing out “some of the habits that Covid gives us will continue.”
He predicts “we will be recovering to tourism as we knew it by 2022” and believes “Easter is going to be the big test” for 2021 demand”. But Valdés is confident Spain is prepared – noting that 21 new anti-Covid protocols have been implemented across the tourism sector “covering all the different segments”.
With some long-haul markets taking longer to return, and Spain popular with British travellers, Valdés welcomed the idea that more UK holidaymakers – with less destinations to choose from – might go to Spain. “Our relationship has deep roots,” he says. “British people feel at home in Spain. Maybe they feel like Spain gives them a solution for 2021.”
But when tourism does return, will is return differently to before?
Valdés believes Covid has “increased the speed of the transformation we have seen over the last 5-10 years”.
He says Spain’s is able to offer “everything” tourists are looking for, from the weather and landscape to good food and sports offerings.
But the important thing nowadays is to do offer these things sustainably, he says, not just in terms of the environment, but use of land, and the social aspect.
“Spain is not the country to have drunken parties,” he says. “We don’t want that image. That might mean that in some destinations we need to move forward to another kind of perspective”. He says it is “too early” to predict whether typical mass-market party-going holidays will be popular in 2021.
Another change on the horizon is Brexit, though Valdés hopes it won’t make very much difference to the tourism sector. In fact, he says Spain has been working hard to ensure it stays roughly the same.
“From a touristic point of view, we are doing our best to avoid any inconvenience related to Brexit,” he says. He wants rules to remain in place so it is easy for UK visitors to hire cars, get health treatment and bring pets.
“I’m very sad that the UK is leaving the EU,” he adds. “That has to be said, but let’s hope the deal is good for both sides so that tourism for British people doesn’t feel very different on January 1.
“Spain is still a two-hour flight, and the UK knows us better than anyone else. We will work to solve these problems so tourism feels the same.”
His assessment of Brexit is a lot less stark than his assessment of Covid. He hopes both will have passed come 2022.