PALMA DE MALLORCA – Thermometer guns, face masks and plastic gloves in airports, hotels and restaurants. Shops shuttered in sleepy streets. Night life verboten.
Holidays in pandemic times are offering many fewer frills for the international traveler.
But Spain’s Balearic Islands are betting that their Mediterranean blue waters, warm sun and sandy beaches are enough to lure back the tourists that their residents' livelihoods depend on.
“We enjoy the fact that we’re allowed to be pretty much alone here. The beach is empty,” German tourist Martin Hofmann said Wednesday while walking along the beach of Palma, Mallorca's main city.
“OK, unfortunately, a lot of places are also closed,” Hoffman said. “There’s only two or three places open here at Playa de Palma now. But, whatever. That’s new and fun.”
Hoffman and his wife Serra are among the first of 10,900 German tourists scheduled to arrive in the Balearic Islands over the next two weeks for whom the Spanish government has waived the current 14-day quarantine requirement. As happy as the islands are to have tourists back, that number represents only 0.91% of the visitors that Mallorca and the three other Balearic Islands welcomed in the second half of June last year.
It may be a trickle of tourists, but they are like manna from above for the archipelago’s struggling economy.
Tourism generates 12% of Spain’s GDP and supports 2.6 million jobs. In Spain’s Balearic and Canary Islands, however, the dependence on tourism jumps to over 30% of their economies. Competing with other European countries that are similarly desperate to fill their hotels, museums and tourist sites, Spain's government announced a 4.2 billion euro ($4.7 billion) aid package for its tourism industry on Thursday.
The president of the Confederation of Business Associations of the Balearic Islands said Wednesday that the island’s economy had contracted 4.5 % in the first quarter of the year and that the second quarter was expected to be even worse due to the prolonged national coronavirus lockdown that Spain has only recently started rolling back.
“The Balearic Islands economy is on course for a very deep recession,” said Carmen Planas, the president of the business group. “On top of that, the Balearic Islands is facing a completely unknown and atypical tourist season that is full of uncertainties.”
Spain is dropping its quarantine requirements for travelers from Europe’s Schengen zone on June 21. But until then, the Balearic Islands are off-limits for visitors, even for Spaniards from the mainland, except for the trial run of German tourists. Authorities hope the Germans can help them test out best tourism practices amid the coronavirus era.
Xisca Sitjar, who runs one of the first hotels to reopen, said her hotel will be back to half of its capacity thanks to the German visitors. Her employees greeted the first busload of Germans on Monday with cheers.
“The pressure is on us,” Sitjar told Onda Cero radio. “We know that everyone is watching us and wants to know the results. I believe it will be a success."
Many retailers and restaurants are counting on the tourists’ return.
“Usually at this time we would see a lot of tourists, a lot of people on the beach, on the promenade, but now we don’t see anyone here,” said Juan Bouzas, owner of a shoe store. “I think things will get better, but very slowly."
The situation is even bleaker outside Mallorca’s main city in Magaluf, a beach town known for offering young Europeans, especially British, a party atmosphere. Mallorca’s fellow island of Ibiza also caters to the party-going crowd but for now, nightclubs remain closed on government orders.
No previous health checks are required for the Germans to travel but they must complete a questionnaire aimed at identifying possible infections. On landing, they face temperature checks, get information on Spain’s social distancing and mask-wearing rules and have their contact information taken.
Local officials have developed detailed protocols to prevent outbreaks and to send the message that Spain, and especially the Balearic Islands, is a safe place to kick back in times of global anxiety.
Face masks are required in all indoor public areas at hotels. Guests get their temperatures taken before the enter hotels restaurants. Gloves are mandatory each time a guest requests food from a buffet, where a worker serves them. Arrows have been put on the floor to map out one-way routes for guests to keep people from crossing paths as much as possible.
Government health workers make random calls to check on the tourists. If a guest has symptoms of the COVID-19 virus — a cough or a fever — authorities say they will get them tested within 24 hours. Those with positive results will be isolated in apartments the government has rented for the summer season. A team of contact tracers, which has been bolstered by 150 new hires, will seek out any people who could have been infected.
Locals want to make sure that tourists do not import new infections. Spain has officially reported over 27,000 deaths in the pandemic but with lockdown measures has drastically reduced the number of patients hospitalized with the virus.
“We wanted to be the first tourist destination in Spain to open for international visitors because we want to show that we are a safe destination,” Francina Armengol, the regional head of the Balearic Islands government, told TV3 television.
“If we do not maintain good health practices, then there will no chance to reactivate our economy," she said.
Wilson reported from Barcelona, Spain.