Europe’s tourism test: How do you bring in tourists and not an outbreak, too?

Alberto Coll Suárez races around the patio of Meraki, a disposable face mask hanging precariously in the balance as he clears coffee cups and saucers from a handful of tables. Mr. Coll Suárez’s cafe-bar in this tourist town has been nearly full since reopening July 13. Business is better than expected, but concerns about the coronavirus linger on.

“I’m anxious,” he says. “The movement of so many people means we don’t know what will happen.”

With much of Europe tentatively returning to a semblance of normal life after several months of pandemic-induced lockdown, the opportunity for travel during the summer season has returned. But while resort towns like Puerto de la Cruz, reliant on tourism, are keen to try to make ends meet by courting travelers who dare hop on a plane, they must balance that against the serious public health concerns that remain.

Editor’s note: As a public service, all our coronavirus coverage is free. No paywall.

Though a vital source of livelihood for Puerto de la Cruz and its kind, tourists also are a potential conduit for a COVID-19 outbreak to be introduced into the community. Or reintroduced in the case of the island of Tenerife, where Puerto de la Cruz lies, as the nearby town of Adeje was the site of one of the earliest major outbreaks in Europe.

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“I love being around people and I want to work but it’s dangerous for me, my son, friends and family,” says Mr. Coll Suárez. “I could potentially be contagious to my loved ones. … I need to open my business but the fear is always there.”

Caution in the Canary Islands

Spain’s Canary Islands region depends on airlines to bring tourists. Only 341 routes are planned for the month of July, as opposed to the 770 before the pandemic. The tourism sector is expected to operate at 30% of capacity compared to last summer, when the loss of 28,000 lives due to COVID-19 had yet to cast a shadow across Spain.

Meraki had only been open for six months when the lockdown started on March 14. Mr. Coll Suárez had little time to prepare financially, but got by thanks to some savings and government aid. With most of his money tied up in the bank loans that helped launch the cafe, he desperately needs the business to succeed. Except for help on Sundays, he works up to 14 hours, six days a week solo.

Most of the clients at Meraki have crossed the street from the Hotel Turquesa Playa, one of the most successful hotels in Puerto de la Cruz, a town in the north of the island.

The doorman here takes the temperature of everyone who enters; a mask is required in the common areas, and bottles of hand sanitizer sit just beyond the door. While the hotel restaurant is open, clients are not allowed to touch anything and table service has replaced the traditional buffet dining.

Guests say these protocols make them feel safe. One couple from Madrid finds it to be safer in Tenerife – where there are very few COVID-19 cases – than back home. Eugenia Petrova, a German tourist who was among the first tourists to arrive in town July 1, finds restrictions here similar to those in Berlin.

“We were not so sure what to expect,” says Ms. Petrova, who traveled with her husband and two children and whose need for a vacation proved greater than coronavirus fears. “When we arrived, there were only three or four families in the hotel. There were no people around, and not many hotel services. The shops were closed. Now it’s starting to become more normal.”

Further south, Adeje boasts the highest concentration of five-star hotels in Europe. It is fighting hard to restore its image after making headlines in February when the H10 Costa Adeje Palace had to confine over 1,000 people to their rooms after an Italian doctor and his wife tested positive for the virus.

“We are working to show this summer that Adeje and the Canary Islands are a safe destination,” says Adolfo Alonso Ferrera, the Adeje councillor for tourism and sport. To that end, the H10 Costa Adeje Palace hosted the head of the World Tourism Organization and dozens of travel journalists to showcase the health protocols adopted across the archipelago.

Frustrations in Greece

Greece is another destination trying to reassure tourists. The tourism season officially opened on June 15 and international flights began reaching regional airports July 1. The Mediterranean nation boasts one key advantage: It defied expectations in its pandemic response. The virus claimed fewer than 200 lives in Greece compared to nearly 35,000 in Italy.

When Nikos Karaflos converted a disused wine factory and launched the beachfront Dexamenes Seaside Hotel in 2019, near the town of Amaliada and the Olympia archaeological site, he was proud of its look. The reception, bar, and restaurant are all open plan. Guest suites are located in concrete former wine tanks – so no corridors, no elevators. 
“The setup of the hotel was in a magical way like a COVID-19 proof design,” says Mr. Karaflos.

He is grateful to be open even if finances are tough. Front desk staff wear a face shield to welcome guests; waiters and cleaners sport masks and gloves. Tables are spaced out beyond the recommended distance. Visitors are gifted complementary masks. And each room is assigned a specific sun lounger and umbrella.

Guests who cancel – and there have been many – are offered vouchers for 2021.

“It was a great shock in the beginning,” he says, looking back to February and March. “Afterwards, it was a lesson in life, so that we appreciate what we have.”

“We see a good vibe from our guests, that [is] the most rewarding part of this season,” he adds. “Everybody needed to let off steam, relax, … and eat well.”

Dimitris Mamadas has two hotels open year-round in mainland Greece. They cater to a mix of tourists and business travelers. He was expecting 2020 to be an “extremely good year” with a projected net profit of €1.2 million ($1.37 million). The coronavirus crisis means he is facing losses to the tune of €500 million instead.

The Aegli hotel in the port town of Volos is faring best, with a 55% occupancy rate, thanks to Balkan tourists who are coming overland. However, a spike in COVID-19 cases associated with these travelers has led Greece to tighten restrictions – barring Serbians and requiring new arrivals from Bulgaria to present a negative COVID-19 test issued in the last 72 hours.

At the Porto Palace in Thessaloniki, experiences with guests have been frustrating, as some expect normal services and are disappointed to learn saunas, hot tubs, and indoor pools are off-limits. “The bad thing is that people who are traveling right now are not afraid of COVID,” says Mr. Mamadas. “They think that everything has passed but it is not the case.”

Giorgos Mylonadis, who runs studio apartments in the Greek island of Chios, is following government health protocols while waiting for ferry activity to resume with Turkey so longtime customers can visit before winter. “People are afraid to travel,” he worries. “If people do not stop having this fear, whatever we do they will not travel.”

“Salvage operation”

Ultimately, 2020 will be at best a “salvage operation,” argues Tom Jenkins, CEO of the European Tourism Association. Northern European beach destinations that can be reached overland will fare better, he says, while Mediterranean beach resorts, especially those dependent on airlines for access, will struggle.

“As this business in 2020 is highly last minute, it is difficult to make a prediction, but it is highly unlikely that they will have more than 50% of their normal volume,” he says. “Everyone is pinning their hopes on a return to a normality (of sorts) in 2021. Many of the bookings for 2020 have been moved into that year.”

Back in Tenerife, the reopening of the European borders has sparked conflicting feelings among locals. Maria Acevedo opened her artisanal jewelry shop Tuqueque in 2018. With one of the shop doors leading directly into the Hotel Turquesa Playa, she relies almost entirely on tourism to make ends meet.

Since reopening at the end of June, she keeps a strict health protocol. Masks are required to enter, jewelry is disinfected and put on a tray for clients to try on, and the shop is constantly ventilated. While she is excited to be back at work, the pace of business has been disappointing.

“It’s been hard,” says Ms. Acevedo, who scraped by on government aid during the lockdown period. “People are scared [to travel] and I’m a little scared too because I don’t know which way things are going to go.”

Tenerife is taking no chances. Masks remain mandatory in all indoor spaces. Many grocery stores take temperature readings at the door. And locals are increasingly wearing their masks to navigate the increasingly crowded town center. Among those erring on the side of caution is Naomi Benavides.

“My friends were teasing me, like why are you wearing the mask outside now? But I started to get nervous,” says the Puerto de la Cruz native. “There are so many people everywhere and you just don’t know where they’ve come from or if they’ve brought the virus with them.”

Editor’s note: As a public service, all our coronavirus coverage is free. No paywall.


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