TAISHE, Spain. In Spain, the number of cases of coronavirus infection has risen sharply, leading to a never-before-seen number of cases during the pandemic. Beds in intensive care units in hospitals were filling up.
But that hasn’t stopped Tatyana Baldynyuk and Timur Neverkevits, an Estonian couple, from buying plane tickets to visit the island of Lanzarote, a sunny, volcanic-dominated outcrop on the eastern edge of the Spanish archipelago of the Canary Islands.
“It was 100% easier to come here than to many other countries,” said Ms Baldyniuk, who works in cargo logistics in Estonia.
More than half of Europeans could be infected with the Omicron variant of the coronavirus by early March, according to the World Health Organization, and fear of its wild spread has led governments to respond differently. The Netherlands has turned to the lockdown, which is only now starting to loosen a bit. Italy has gone so far as to ban unvaccinated people from bars and public transport.
And while Spain has tightened up some of its own rules in recent weeks, its message to tourists has remained largely the same as it was before the spike in cases: please come.
Western European countries currently have some of the highest infection rates in the world. In Spain, the number of new cases increased from an average of less than 2,000 a day in early November to over 130,000 a day last week.
But unlike some of its neighbors, Spain does not require a negative test to enter the country. In some parts of the country, entering a restaurant remains as easy as ever. In Madrid, unlike in Paris and Rome, proof of a vaccine is not required, and the same remains true in many other regions.
Like other countries, Spain is trying to balance the economic hardships it may endure while trying to keep its people safe. But here the memories of the recent financial crash are particularly fresh.
In 2020, the Spanish economy shrank by more than 11 percent, its worst contraction since the Civil War in the 1930s. And this happened just over a decade after the 2008 economic crisis. In the following years, this collapse destroyed much of the economy, leading to widespread unemployment and homelessness, with some of the hungry left looking for food in garbage cans.
According to Manuel Hidalgo, professor of economics at the Pablo de Olavide University in Seville, Spanish politicians are aware of what is at stake to keep visitors flowing to the country.
“Now the tourism sector is of increased importance,” he said.
Before the pandemic, the tourism business accounted for roughly 12.4% of the country’s economic output, and Spain is keen to push those numbers back up, especially during the winter months when northern Europeans head south to escape the cold. Spanish tourism employs over 2.23 million people, which is almost 11.8 percent of the country’s workforce, much higher than neighboring countries such as France (7.3 percent) or Germany (8.4 percent).
However, keeping the door open for visitors comes with risks that are well remembered in Spain. In 2020, in an effort to open up to tourism and return to normal, Spain eased its restrictions ahead of the summer, helping to trigger a second deadly wave of coronavirus.
The number of foreign tourists has fallen from 84 million in 2019 to about 19 million in 2020, a drop of more than 77 percent.
The Spanish government has said it has little interest in returning to the restrictions put in place during the first wave in 2020, saying that thanks to its successful vaccination campaign, the country has already taken the biggest measures it can to contain the impact of the virus.
Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez recently went even further, saying the country must accept that the virus has become a fact of life. “We will have to learn to live with it, as we do with many other viruses,” he said.
The island of Lanzarote, 80 miles off the northwest coast of Africa, offers a window into tourism where the coronavirus is considered endemic and the flow of foreign visitors continues as it did before the pandemic.
Its skies are littered with tourist planes arriving on direct flights from Manchester, Amsterdam and Düsseldorf. The warm weather means most of the island can be enjoyed outdoors without a mask. Northern Europeans flock to wineries built along the black slopes of volcanoes and adorned with signs in German and English.
“This has to be the way forward, Spain has to accept that the virus is not going away and that we need to keep doing business,” said Juan Antonio Torres Diaz, who became the owner of Palacio Ico six months ago. , restaurant and hotel in the north of the island, betting on the recovery of tourism.
Some say other parts of the country are starting to see signs that foreign tourists are also learning to live with the virus.
Cristobal Ruiz Mejias, a longtime waiter at Chinitas, an iconic cafe in Malaga’s mainland beach town, said he’s seeing tourists returning not only from France and the UK, but now from more distant countries like Argentina. He is also adjusting to changes in his work, such as asking for vaccination certificates before clients can sit down, which is required in the Andalusia region where Malaga is located.
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“I’m still worried about having to ask for them,” he said, adding that he fears fear of the virus could deter tourists and damage Malaga’s fragile recovery.
For Encarna Pérez Donaire, owner of a small holiday home company in Ornos de Segura, a village in southern Spain, the current approach is a welcome contrast to last year, when, in the absence of affordable vaccines, shops and businesses in the region were not allowed to reopen.
About three-quarters of her rooms are now occupied, she said. Her company has developed protocols that tourists find comfortable, leaving rooms to air out during the day between guests and leaving keys in boxes to avoid contact with property managers.
Ms. Perez Donaire said the problems now stem less from government restrictions and more about concerns about a new option. “People want to go out, but because Omicron is so contagious, there have been more cancellations,” she said.
And the open door policy in Spain has not been without its risks, as tourists such as Marian López, a Spanish online marketer, found out during a trip with his partner to the island of Lanzarote.
Before arriving on January 7, the couple celebrated a family dinner in honor of Three Kings Day, a traditional holiday in Spain. They spent the first weekend visiting some of the island’s beaches and then learned that a relative at their birthday dinner had Covid-19. Then they too began to feel symptoms, including body aches and fevers, and tests showed they were infected, forcing them to isolate themselves.
After their hotel reservation ended, they had to find an apartment to wait out the remainder of the mandatory week-long isolation period – all while flaring up.
Ms Lopez, who also runs a travel blog called Travellanding, said she and her partner joked before the trip that it might not be such a bad thing if they were forced to work from the island if they got sick. Now they think differently.
“When you’re sick,” she said, “it’s better to be at home.”
Nicholas Casey reported from Taiche, Spain. Joseph Baptist reported from Madrid.