The coronavirus crisis has flung Europe’s tourism sector into chaos, with borders closed and airlines grounded. But if that is frustrating for holidaymakers, it risks ruining holiday businesses and devastating the economies that depend on them.
From the Algarve in Portugal to the Greek islands, and from the chic resorts of Italy’s Amalfi coast to the pubs and clubs of the Spanish costas, no one knows whether Europe’s holidaymakers will come this year, or how to survive if they do not.
The losses are already dramatic. The European commission estimates that the EU’s hotels and restaurants will lose half their income this year. Tourism revenues fell by 95% in Italy and 77% in Spain in March, according to the banking group UBS.
Across southern Europe, where recovery from the 2008 crisis relied to a significant extent on tourism, the sector is vital to national economies. It accounts for 20% of GDP in Greece, 18% in Portugal, 15% in Spain and 13% in Italy, according to the World Bank.
Italy’s small business federation CNA expects 25 million fewer foreign visitors between July and September. Sicily, one of the country’s flagship destinations for summer tourism, is already reporting 65% of bookings cancelled. The National Tourism Agency forecasts a €20bn fall in income compared with 2019.
Italy’s tourism minister, Dario Franceschini, said the country was working hard to strike a balance between safety concerns and the reopening of tourism facilities. “It won’t be easy, but we’ll see it through,” he said.
Businesses are experimenting with four-metre plexiglass barriers on beachfronts and restaurateurs with glass shields between tables, but all know the impact on tourism will will be felt for years to come. Business is not expected to return to pre-coronavirus levels until 2023.
Greece says it foresees a July start to the season, with a low rate of infection and Covid-19 deaths fuelling optimism it can project itself as a safe destination. “All bets are on the next two months,” said Grigoris Tasios, the president of the Panhellenic Federation of Hoteliers.
Resorts in northern Greece are looking to boost occupancy from neighbouring Balkan states that have also handled the pandemic well. “Romania, Bulgaria, Serbia and Skopje [Macedonia] together have a population of 40 million and from any of them people can get to us by car,” he said.
The Czech Republic, Slovakia and Croatia, which have reported low numbers of infections, proposed corridors to the Adriatic coast.
These could perhaps be accompanied, it has been suggested, by a common “Covid-19 passport” testifying to the bearer’s health before travel, or by in-resort testing once they arrive.
Germany has rejected bilateral solutions. The country’s foreign minister, Heiko Maas, said an EU “race to see who will allow tourist travel” first would pose unacceptable risks, turning down an offer from Austria for Germans to take their holidays there and pointing to the role of the Austrian ski resort of Ischgl in accelerating the spread of the pandemic in central Europe.
The EU’s internal market commissioner, Thierry Breton, has called for a “Marshall plan” using funds from Europe’s vast economic stimulus packages to haul hotels, restaurants and tour operators back from collapse, and the EU’s executive has promised guidelines for a coordinated restart to travel.
Increasingly desperate business owners are demanding action, but many governments do not sound positive. Holidays in other EU countries are not yet possible for Germans, the chancellor, Angela Merkel said bluntly on Thursday.
France’s prime minister, Edouard Philippe, said it would “not be reasonable to imagine travelling very far abroad very soon”, and Spain’s foreign minister, Arancha González Laya, said the country would gradually reopen to tourism, but not until “we are in a position to guarantee tourists’ safety”.
The bloc’s internal borders remain closed for leisure travel, with no prospect of an imminent reopening or decision likely before at least the end of May.