Europe's tourism industry reels as COVID-19 resurgence hits peak summer season
The post-lockdown period was supposed to be a time when people across Europe could relax, enjoy the summer weather, and — yes — perhaps even go on holiday abroad in a welcome break from the stress and hardship of the past few months.
Instead, weeks after borders reopened, the start of the peak summer season has brought a bout of nerves as coronavirus clusters re-emerge and fresh restrictions are imposed in some areas.
Spain's tourism industry has become the centre of attention after the UK's sudden and startling move forcing arrivals from the Mediterranean country to self-isolate for 14 days. On Monday night Britain extended its advice against non-essential travel to include the Balearic and Canary Islands as well as the Spanish mainland.
Norway has also ordered a quarantine period of 10 days for people returning from the entire Iberian peninsula. Meanwhile, on Friday, France urged its citizens not to visit Spain's Catalonia region.
Elsewhere, Belgium has tightened its "social bubble" restrictions to further limit the number of people who can gather together. It comes in the wake of an alarming increase in coronavirus cases amid a surge of infections in Antwerp.
In Austria, more than 50 people tested positive for COVID-19 in the lakeside resort town of St Wolfgang, in an outbreak linked to a bar which has since seen its opening hours curtailed.
Greece has confirmed that from Tuesday (July 28) and for at least a week, visitors arriving by air from Bulgaria and Romania -- Greek nationals excepted — will need to show proof that they have tested negative for coronavirus in order to enter the country. Both countries have seen a huge surge in cases this month.
Greek authorities have also said they are likely to extend the mandatory use of masks at churches and shopping centres, citing people's lack of respect for safety guidelines.*
UK blow to Spanish tourism
The suddenness of the UK government's move to quarantine arrivals from Spain was illustrated by the fact that among the hundreds of thousands of tourists affected — many of whom have had their holiday plans thrown into havoc — is its own transport minister.
It's a devastating blow for a country where tourism employs 2.6 million people and generates 12% of economic activity. One industry chief says the sector has on average lost €5 billion a week since March.
Britain sends more tourists to Spain each year than any other European country. But on Sunday Europe's largest holiday company TUI said it would cancel all flights to the Spanish mainland until August 9.
The northeastern Catalonia and Aragón regions have Spain's most worrying virus clusters, prompting authorities to tighten restrictions in Barcelona, in a rural area around Lleida and in Zaragoza that were relaxed only a month ago.
Catalonia's leader Quim Torra insists that Catalonia is safe overall, echoing an appeal at national level by Spain's foreign minister Arancha González Laya. "Spain is a safe country," she said in response to the British move.
In particular, the blanket nature of the quarantine move has angered many in Spain and in the travel industry generally. Away from the northeast, in 14 of the country's 17 regions coronavirus infection rates are lower than in the UK.
But appeals from authorities in the Balearic and Canary Islands, and in the Valencia region — which includes the popular Costa Blanca — have fallen on deaf ears in London. The UK government says it has no plans to issue exemptions to its rules.
'Not a clever way of doing it'
Simon McNamara of the International Air Transport Association (IATA) told Dailyrater that the UK government's measures were "not a good way of dealing with this issue".
He called for more "targeted measures looking at where the risks are", perhaps to allow people who had been to certain areas to quarantine, or to set up alternative methods such as testing.
These, he argued, would be better ways to guarantee safety, get economies moving again, and address the key question of consumer confidence in the travel industry.
The UK's blanket measure, he said, was "not a clever way of doing it".
There are signs of a different approach from France and Germany, amid concerns that returning holidaymakers may bring infections back with their suntans.
German officials decided last week to set up testing stations at airports to encourage people arriving from a long list of countries deemed high-risk — including traditionally popular destinations such as Turkey — to get tested. They will also allow people to get tested elsewhere for free within three days of arrival.
In France, which has also stepped up testing at airports, has increased the number of facilities in tourist areas, to encourage holidaymakers to get tested. The French government, meanwhile, has decreed that swab tests for coronavirus are to be available without prescription and available for free, even to people displaying no symptoms.