a colorful tiled bench in a city

In recent years, Spain became the second most visited country in the world behind France, leapfrogging the USA on the back of cheap flights, stunning cities and unprecedented mobility between European capitals. It’s not just an impressive statistic, but a profitable one as well.

The country brought in circa $200 billion (USD) on the back of 83.7 million tourists last year. The figure represents over 10% of annual GDP for the entire country, and that figure is in line with France, which estimates at least 9.7% of the country’s gross domestic product derives from tourism.

It doesn’t take an economist to tell you that losing 10% of an entire GDP is serious business, and even more serious for thousands, if not millions of local businesses.

As countries throughout Europe initiate plans to re-open, or loosen quarantine restrictions, tourism is one of the buzzing topics, and the buzz is that Spain will turn away all tourism through 2020. Italy is touting the same notion.

That may be the best answer for world health, but even that isn’t a certainty. Health is worth more than any amount of money, but the lack of access to money or opportunity could cause equal if not greater demise, and there may be better interim solutions. Covid-19 didn’t even exist just five months ago, so isn’t it early to pull the plug on plans eight months out?

a motorcycle driving past a large stone buildingWhat European Countries Are Saying

Spain is looking at a two phase plan to re-open the country, and Labor Minister Yolanda Diaz has been quoted in recent days with an outlook that suggests no travel through 2020. Travel is currently lumped into plans of attenuated exceptionality, and attenuated normality, the latter of which won’t see a resurgence until 2021.

Italy is examining an equally bleak outlook to Spain, in terms of tourism recovery. The country is currently examining the notion of borders and travel being closed through March 31st, 2021, in a three phase plan which doesn’t open schools again until September, let alone border gates.

In remarks released prior to those from Spain, or Italy, President Macron of France was quoted with an outlook stating travel may not return until September, 2020. At the time, that was the grimmest outlook offered by a European leader, but recent statements out of Spain and Italy eclipse the bleak outlook.

Elsewhere, EU countries have largely avoided speculation, simply extending shelter at home orders for a number of weeks at a time. Most experts simply state it’s too early to tell.

Can EU Countries Afford To Ban Travel?

With a population of over 46 million, $200 billion in Spanish tourism revenue translates to over $4,300 per person. Of course, it doesn’t work that way – but it’s a powerful eye opener to just how big the losses are.

Tabernas, restaurants, cafes and guides throughout the country relied on tourism, and without it, no reasonable amount of economic stimulus would be likely to keep these businesses alive. Tourism brought in roughly double the number of residents, and without those numbers, hardly any business from local clothing shops to buzzy bars can survive.

That’s not even taking into account the brutality brought on by the potential collapse of larger travel businesses like hotels or airlines with hundreds or thousands of employees, all of which may be let go at some point, if a rebound isn’t coming within 12 months. Even national flag carriers could face jeopardy if more expedient time tables aren’t safely reached.

Let’s not forget Airbnb owners either, many of whom took out multiple mortgages during boom times to cash in on unprecedented European tourism demand, all of which could go into default, leading to a widespread housing panic.

a group of people walking in a courtyard with Plaza Mayor, Madrid in the backgroundIs There a Better Way Forward?

Emirates recently became the first airline to initiate covid-19 finger prick tests immediately before flights, for destinations requiring prior testing. The plan isn’t without flaws, and absolutely adds a literal pain point to the sometimes painful experience of international travel, but it could provide a lifeline to countries dependent, and desperate for revenue.

Once global peaks have been reached, proactive screening and or passenger certification could lower risk factors to a significant enough level that a case for border openings would be robust.

If health systems have largely recovered and risk factors are closely monitored, surely there’s a point at which the damage being done from travel bans outweighs the increasingly mitigated risks.

Until a vaccine is released, which could be 18 months from now, there’s no foolproof solution, but agreed standards for travel across borders may be the only thing which keeps the world from a full scale depression. If borders don’t open sometime soon, it’s fair to say everyone might be depressed, not just the economy.

Gilbert Ott

Gilbert Ott is an ever curious traveler and one of the world's leading travel experts. His adventures take him all over the globe, often spanning over 200,000 miles a year and his travel exploits are regularly...

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  1. That’s a bummer! We have a 30 person family reunion booked in Barcelona for August 2020. A lot of international flights will have to be cancelled. We booked with a private owner so deposit refunds are probably out of the question.

  2. This whole situation has been mismanaged from the get-go: the idea of flattening the curve has been not to overwhelm the hospital system, but in so doing it actually prolongs the time the disease hangs around. There is a very direct correlation of suicides and poor health outcomes for people faced with or living with severe economic distress. Governments, media, and the populus need to realise that had we spent a fraction of the lost economic output on rapidly building out hospitals (and suitably kitting them with equipment and personnel, obviously) from the get-go (or even shortly thereafter even) we would not have had to condemn literally hundreds of millions of people around the world to poverty.

  3. My boyfriend is there hes a US citizen there when his contract job finished. Now when they let him come back to the United states

  4. I hope that this isn’t the case. This would put millions more out of jobs permanently. People survive on tourism income, so this would be despicable.

  5. Another example is Croatia. I read last week in respectable media that Ministers of Tourism of Croatia, Czech Republic, Austria and Hungary are looking into ways how to let tourists come to Croatian coast this summer. There were even quotes from ministers. After two days, this was strongly refuted by chief epidemiologist and interior minister who said that there won’t be any tourists coming until the current picture improves.

    It’s way too early and individual politicians should shut up and stop speculating. And this goes for the media too. Once the figures are in single or very low two digits for week or two in a row then we can start speculating about when the travel resumes. Until then just enjoy dreaming and planning!

  6. @Meta: You are right. The speculation worldwide by political hacks and other ‘experts’ has lead to me calling this pandemic akin to being treated by many as a weather event. This is not a snowstorm, hurricane, cyclone, flood but a severe medical disease (COVI’D’). It is extraordinary the amount of speculation and dis and misinformation circulating throughout world governments at all levels. Everyone has their opinion. COVID-19 is for the most part still unknown as regards the way it affects the human body short and long term. No one knows whether this disease will ‘burn out’ or linger on indefinitely. No one knows if there will be successive waves of infections at scales that require future lock downs. NO ONE KNOWS FOR CERTAINTY ABOUT ANYTHING REGARDING COVID-19. Other than it is dangerous, rapidly transmits and deadly. As for vaccines, well, did anyone ever come up with one for SARS 1.0 and MERS? No. Don’t hold out the frauds who know nothing about a coming vaccine in 12 to 18 months. All irresponsible statements. Yes, everyone wants life to resume to normal. But we cannot be unguarded and allow the self-interested to further what is a calamity. Ultimately, look to see what people do, what decisions are made ‘for you’, but in the end only you can – and have that ability – to decide for yourself what is best to protect yourself. Let those who wish to fly fly when the time comes. You needn’t join the herd. Save yourself! No one will do it for you.

  7. @steve r – you sound like one that would sacrifice everything for health. There has to be an economic balance. Once the peak is over and there are effective medical treatments (some already very promising) COVID can be better managed even w/o a vaccine. It is all about understanding it, not avoiding any infections or deaths.

    Couple of stats:

    – the flu kills 10,000-60,000 every year in the US but you don’t see businesses close.
    – herd immunity is an effective way to stop the disease since once over 50% of people are infected and have antibodies the spread slows dramatically.
    – 2 studies in last week indicate actual number of positive tests understates those infected by 50-85 times.
    – based on 50-85 time multiplier if 800,000 in US test positive number infected is between 40,000,000 and 66,000,000 or already between 12-20% of total US population

    Don’t be scared numbers above are a good think. Remember up to half that get virus have no symptoms, another 40 percent have mild symptoms, only 1.2% are hospitalized and about 20% of these end up on ventilators. If you say all on ventilators die (and over statement) that would indicate a mortality rate of .03%.

    Mortality rate was way overstated for months due to lack of understanding how much it had spread. We are starting to get into numbers with level of infection and overall mortality rate that this is Managable and life can resume. Yes more will die but you can’t stop everything and sacrifice the economy for all due to something that only severely impacts a very small percentage (disproportionately older) and a large percentage of people are already infected and have antibodies

    1. While I agree with your stance, I think you’re letting it guide your interpretation of/faith in the data you’re seeing, rather than analyzing the data to get to a logical conclusion.

      The 50-85x is not necessarily applicable to the studied country as a whole (i.e. it’s not a country-wide average), and definitely not applicable to every region. Where positivity rates for symptomatic cases are <10%, and they don't have too much intermingling among the population or contact with harder-hit areas, I really doubt those numbers are applicable.

      There are some marginally promising therapies; I think you're overselling them, though.

      The flu doesn't spread like wildfire, and basically goes to 0 in the summer.

      Herd immunity may require upwards of 65% for this. We still don't have a precise R0.

      All that said, Spain and Italy thinking of keeping borders closed til the end of the year, or into next year, is stupid. You're bound to replace a lot of international travel with a lot of domestic travel, and frequency of contacts will still increase; travelers coming from very low risk, or previously hard hit, countries will not pose a threat; economies that are that reliant on tourism will surely suffer much worse consequences if they lengthen the lockdown too much; and countries that were hit hardest are better prepared to respond to future outbreaks, as they have more robust testing and contact tracing, more experience with treatment and disease management, more experience in managing a tighter lockdown, and more immunity in the general population.

      As an aside, according to Cuomo – one of the more data-driven leaders – 20% come off the ventilator.

  8. amongst the many things we don’t know about this thing is the extent of any immunity in someone who had it. There may not be any, much, nor for very long. We don’t know about mutation possibility. Cleaning up a country then allowing people in from anywhere without quarantine would be nuts. Vaccine – well most of them aren’t safe or not fully effective especially when new. It’s nice to hope for what we want but let’s wait till the figures support it.

    Btw : I do agree that the true rate of infection is far, far overstated as most countries are only mainly testing those who are really sick or their contacts. But putting aside percentages, in absolute numbers too many people are dying that would not if this disease wasn’t here. Too many people need high level of specialist medical care to survive. And we’re still not sure if people who survive have lasting damage or other problems.

    I would like those under 50 to go back to work as soon as possible. Then after 3 weeks, if we can still treat the numbers affected, those under 65. After three weeks someone to take a decision on how to self-isolate, or not, those 65-70 or over. And special solutions so we don’t have this disease ripping through any place where older or sicker or less wealthy people live close together.

    To decide all these things we need to wait and figure for a bit longer. I dont like not seeing my family and friends any more thanyou do. But we need to give it more time. For sure weeks, maybe months.

  9. When domestic travel is allowed for vacation purposes, there is no reason to discriminate against international tourists if the infection rates are similar in their countries. I guess these countries would reconsider as job losses and bankruptcies explode.

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