After a Long, Hard Summer, Southern Europe’s Long Awaited Tourism Recovery Remains Largely Elusive

Global travel is still far from returning to anything like the conditions that existed prior to the pandemic — at least for non-essential travellers.

The EU’s covid-19 passport “has been of little benefit” for Spain’s tourism industry, according to Carlos Abella, secretary general of the country’s Tourism Board. “The expected boost to confidence and mobility between countries that the single-page document was supposed to provide has not materialised. On the contrary, each country has set its own rules and that has generated a lot of uncertainty”. 

As NC warned back in late June, Europe’s grand reopening risked becoming a bit of a damp squib. Travel restrictions were still in place for many countries, including the UK, where cases of the Delta variant were (and still are) surging. In 2019, the UK ranked as the leading tourist market for Spain, accounting for almost one in every four visitors, as well as Cyprus and Malta. In Greece and Portugal it was the second largest. But it wasn’t until August that British travellers could finally visit the mainland. Many chose not to.

A Lot Better than 2020 But Still a Lot Worse Than 2019

Spain received 4.4 million overseas tourists in July, according to the National Institute of Statistics (INE). That’s 78% more than last year. But it’s still 55% less than the same month of 2019, back in the old prepandemic days. The overall balance for this year so far is also not overly encouraging. Between January and July 2021, 9.8 million foreigners visited Spain. That’s significantly below the 13.2 million arrivals the country had received by July 2020 — thanks to the two and a half normal months of tourism (January to mid-March) before the first lockdown. It is also 80% lower than the 47.9 million arrivals Spain received in the first seven months of 2019.

In other words, recovery is still a long way off. And that is not good news for a sector that provides around 13% of Spain’s GDP. Last year, foreign tourist expenditure collapsed to less than €20 billion, from €92 billion in 2019. Domestic tourism picked up some of the slack, but nonetheless Spain still ended up suffering the second biggest loss in tourism revenues (-$47 billion) worldwide, after the US (-$147 billion).

As happened last year, domestic tourism has made up some of the difference so far this year. Eighty-eight percent of Spanish residents who travelled this summer stayed local. That is good news for the environment. It also provided vital support for the country’s all-essential hospitality industry, although it was not such good news for travel agents or airlines. And vacationing Spaniards, even with all the savings amassed (by some) over the past 18 months of lockdowns, curfews and travel restrictions, do not have as much disposable income as German, British, Scandinavian, Asian or American tourists.

“Domestic tourism has performed very well, even surpassing pre-Covid levels, above all in coastal areas,” says Abella. “And it has salvaged the summer season, but it does not make up for the fall in international visitors.”

In the absence of overseas visitors Spain’s Tourism Board said it will be impossible to save the industry without a common EU-wide policy on travel requirements for the bloc. Hotels and hostels that have struggled to generate revenues over the past 18 months are going under. Many are being bought by private equity funds. Even in the northeastern region of Catalonia, which has seen the highest occupancy levels this summer, 113 hotels — ranging from small-family run pensiones to big luxury establishments belonging to global chains — have been put up for sale, according to the real estate portal Idealista. Sixty-five of them are in Barcelona.

In other parts of the EU, the summer season was either somewhat better or somewhat worse than in Spain. Cities and regions that tend to attract long-distance travellers have fared worse. A case in point is Rome which has grown to depend on the custom of well-heeled American and Asian visitors. Though travellers from the US, China, Japan and South Korea were on the EU’s safe list for travel to Europe for much of this summer, they have not been coming in anywhere like the numbers of prepandemic years.

“Roman tourism is 80% foreigners, and of those, 80% are Americans and Asians,” says Walter Pecoraro, owner of the Cosmopolita hotel in Rome and president of Rome’s hoteliers association. According to the association, 600 hotels out of 1,200 were open this summer, with an average occupancy rate of 30% to 35%.

In Italy as a whole, a record number of native holidaymakers travelled within their own country. According to a survey by Italian tourism and commerce agency CNA, 23 million Italians chose to vacation at home this summer compared to 17 million in 2020 and 18 million in 2019. But the country only attracted some six million foreign visitors over the same period – far fewer than before the pandemic. 

It was a similar story in France, which had a pretty good summer, according to Sebastien Manceau, a tourism specialist at consulting firm Roland Berger. But this was largely thanks to the French themselves: some 37 million (of a population of 67 million) took vacations this summer, and 85% of them stayed in the country, said Jean-Baptiste Lemoyne, secretary of state in charge of tourism.

Greece Winning the Race

When it comes to luring visitors from far and wide, one country appears to have outperformed all the others: Greece. Despite raging wildfires and surging Covid-19 infections across Europe, Greece managed to surpass the two-million milestone in both July and August, which hasn’t happened since 2019. According to the Greek Aviation Authority, air traffic during the first half of this year was up by 146% on the same period of 2020. But it was still down by 63% on pre-pandemic levels.

It was in midsummer that arrivals began surging. On August 13, the Financial Times proclaimed Greece winner “in the race for tourism recovery in Europe, despite the wildfires afflicting the area north of Athens.” The main reason for the country’s success, according to the FT article, was the effective marketing campaign used to let people around the world know that Greece is open for tourism. Another reason is that Greece recognises the highest number of covid vaccines for travel in Europe. As a consequence, travellers from all over the world inoculated with one of the many vaccines it accepts (see list here) can travel to the country without having to quarantine.

On July 1, the EU introduced a vaccine passport for all of its member states, with the ostensible aim of easing travel within and (in theory) to Europe for EU citizens and residents who are fully vaccinated or have recovered from COVID-19. But the EU (European Union) Digital COVID Certificate programme only relaxes travel to and within the region for recipients of one of the four vaccines approved by the European Medicines Agency (EMA) — i.e., those developed by BioNTech-Pfizer, Janssen (Johnson & Johnson), Moderna and Vaxzevria. Chinese-, Russian-, Indian- and Cuban-made vaccines did not make the grade.

This means that people from places that are not on the EU’s safe list of third-party countries that have received one of these vaccines are barred entry, unless the country they hope to visit has made the necessary exemptions. In the case of Greece, it had made exemptions for six additional vaccines (Sinovac, AstraZeneca – Serum Institute of India, Novavax, Sputnik V, Cansino Biologics and Sinopharm Bip). Countries such as France and Italy made no exemptions whatsoever while Spain allows entry to people who have received Chinese-made vaccinations, since they have dominated vaccine supplies in Latin America, with which Spain has extremely close ties.

New Bans on US Travellers

The bad news is that the good times (in an extremely relative sense) may already be coming to an end, even for Greece. Last week, the EU announced it was dropping the US, as well as five other countries (Israel, Bosnia, Lebanon, Montenegro and North Macedonia), from its safe list. It’s now up to each of the EU’s 27 member states to decide what measures to take, though the message from Brussels is clear: entry for nonessential US travellers should be reconsidered.

Many prime tourist destinations, including Spain and Greece, have so far chosen to ignore the non-binding advice. Just three countries have change the rules so far: the Netherlands and Sweden, which have imposed a quarantine for all US visitors, even those who are fully vaccinated, and Italy, which will require all travellers to show proof of a PCR or antigen Covid test taken within 72 hours of travel.

The ostensible reason for removing the US from the safe list is the surging number of infections in the countries. But there’s also probably an element of tit-for-tat in the decision. The US has kept its ban on European non-essential travel in place since March 2020. European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen warned that the lack of reciprocity would not be allowed to “drag on for weeks.” That was a few weeks ago. 

Over the last 18 months the only way non-essential EU travelers have been able to reach the US is via a third country that is not subject to US travel restrictions. But you have to spend 14 days in quarantine there before being able to continue on to the US.

It’s a reminder that global travel is still far from returning to anything like the conditions that existed prior to the pandemic — at least for non-essential travellers. It may never happen. In the meantime, the pain continues to grow for many companies in the travel and tourism industry, as well as the countries that have grown to depend upon it for the income and jobs it generates.

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  1. JohnA

    From my personal experience of visiting Spain recently from the UK for family reasons, if you do not have a smartphone and a reliable wifi connection, it would be near impossibly complicated.
    Firstly to visit Spain, you have to prove you have had 2 vaccinations, or provide a recent negative test. And fill in an online form about your whereabouts in Spain and reason for visiting. But returning to England is a whole lot more hassle. Firstly, you have to get a covid test <72 before your return flight. Mine cost 30 euros and was done in 10 minutes, but I had to search online and find a clinic that offered these, in my case in another town. Then you have to complete an online locator form in England and order and pay for a day 2 test for covid. There is a range of private providers who have bait and switch prices online, that hint at £20 but are actually more like £80, per person. I ordered mine via the airline for £45, and only on payment and email confirmation, did I learn that the at home test kit had to be returned to a drop box, the nearest location to me at least 50 km away. (or arrange a biosecure courier that cost an arm and a leg). So I had to take the train to London and back purely to deposit the sample, another time and expense. The airline check in staff checked all these various documents were in order before boarding, along with temperature checks etc.
    All in all, a time consuming and expensive procedure, and without being able to download documents to a smartphone, near impossible unless you also travel with a portable printer and laptop. And if you do test positive, you will be stranded with all the added complications of rebookings and accommodation costs. Not worth the stress unless your trip is necessary, as mine was.

    1. WhoaMolly

      We just canceled a planned trip to Canada from the US. JohnA’s account lists all the reasons we decided to stay home.
      1. < 72 hour test. Where will we wait for results? We live a thousand miles from the border, and will be traveling by car. Thus we have to take the test *at the border* to make sure we don't exceed the 72 hours.
      2. < 72 hour test. Costs advertised from $259 to $80 US. The clinics that looked likely were $160-$200. Each person!
      3. < 72 hour PCR test. Results returned online. Will online on phone be accepted at border? Maybe.
      4. < 72 hour test. Where do we wait for the test? In a hotel room at the border? Rooms running in the $100 -$150 a night range.
      5. Return to US. If we (both vaccinated) show COVID on a PCR test we will be stuck in Canada. Both of us carry medical insurance in the US, neither of which cover Canada.

  2. PlutoniumKun

    We’ve seen lots of stupidities during Covid, but the idea that somehow a summer holiday season could, and should, have been saved in Europe for 2020 and 2021 is one of the stand out ones. Actively encouraging cross continental travel in the middle of a pandemic with a rapidly evolving virus is darwin award level idiocy. And all because of an ideological attachment to open borders and an economically vapid attachment to the idea that you can’t use your currency issuing powers to protect the economically vulnerable regions during an emergency.

    One peculiar aspect of this is that nobody seems to have really got to grips with the fact that encouraging people to take a break locally has many environmental and economic benefits. The only losers are low cost airlines. Back at the beginning of this I checked to see what the overall balance of payments was in my own country for tourism. It was a 1.1 billion euro deficit – i.e. Irish people spend more on travel than the country earns. And yet since then there has been a constant whinge from tourism (i.e. airline) interests that stopping tourists would be a disaster (I searched long and hard but I could not find a single reference in the media to the fact that stopping holiday travel would result in a 1 billion euro windfall for the economy). In reality, the damage was caused to restaurants and hotels by lockdowns. Much of the tourism industry here has boomed, thanks to more people staying at home. A sensible policy would have embraced the benefits of more home vacations, and compensated those sectors/regions that suffered through other reasons.

    1. WhoaMolly

      Local tourism in my corner of California doesn’t seem to have increased. Perhaps because of the on-again-off-again lockdowns and mask requirements. I literally don’t know if I can go downtown and eat in a restaurant from week to week.

      On top of that, some of the state parks are closed, or maybe not. If there’s a logic or pattern to closures I haven’t seen it.

  3. Tony Wright

    Before the Covid19 pandemic I regularly saw articles and comments in both investment newsletters, and occasionally in mainstream media, concerning the perceived fragility of banks and the economies more broadly in Italy, Spain, Greece, and many other European countries.
    Given the adverse economic impacts of Covid19, especially on tourism as discussed in this article, the state of banks and economies in Europe must have deteriorated further.
    However I have come across virtually no analyses of European banks and economies this year.
    Could any NC readers enlighten me?

  4. James Simpson

    Mr Corbishley begins from the standpoint that tourism and fossil-fuelled transport are unequivocally goods to be pursued. The first of those supposed goods became common only very recently; prior to that it was the preserve of only the very rich. The second has to be ended as soon as possible. Jetting away to a sunnier or colder clime for pleasure will not be the future, and should not be the present.

  5. Nick Corbishley


    This article was intended as a snapshot of Southern Europe’s hugely important tourism industry a year and a half into this pandemic.

    I have never been a big fan of mass tourism. I live in one of the European cities most affected by the Airbnb “revolution” (Barcelona) and I have spent the last five years warning (mainly on Wolf Street) about Spain’s over-dependence on mass tourism and the huge externalities it leaves in its wake.

    But none of that changes the fact that tourism is hugely important for the economies of Spain, Italy, Portugal and Greece (and even more so in other parts of the world such as the Caribbean, where tourism IS the economy). In the case of Greece, IIRC, it provides over 15% of GDP. At the local level (suh as in the Canary Islands) it can provide as much as one out of every three euros generated.

    These are all countries that have already been roiled (in the case of Greece wrecked) by economic crisis in the past decade or so. Their financial systems are still pretty fragiIe. If the EU and ECB don’t provide the necessary support over the course of this new crisis there’s likely to be a lot more economic pain in the not-too-distant future.

    1. Joe Well

      Very curious to see if attitudes to “guiris” in Barcelona and Spain generally have improved now that they are scarcer and if any changes will be lasting.

    2. Ignacio

      Over-dependence on mass tourism. Indeed!!! And only came to be grater in pre-Covid years. Arab spring helped, it was the only bright economic spot after the financial meltdown. Covid is precisely one of the biggest slaps in the face for such over-dependence that one can imagine yet nobody says it loudly.

      No industrial policy, some IT, etc. And regarding the use of energy resources, Nick, I think it would be interesting to check and compare with CORDIS statistics and INE statistics the consumption of different oil products, and the numbers of international/national tourists. Don’t you?

      1. Nick Corbishley

        Will check that out Ignacio, especially with electricity prices setting a new record just about every week. Thanks for the heads up.

    3. WhoaMolly

      I was considering a trip to Madrid for a professional conference in the summer of 2022.

      Now not so sure. I don’t think we’re going to see the end of this for another two or three years.

  6. Paul Hubbard

    “a bit of a damp squid” is a lovely bit of unintended humor. ‘Damp squib’ is probably the intended phrase.

    1. Nick Corbishley

      Thanks Paul. When it comes to unintended humour, I have my moments.

      The mistake is now rectified though it was tempting to just let the squid stay.

  7. David

    Ah, I was going to nominate “damp squid” for the Grauniad Prize misprint of the month…..

    This seems to be happening throughout Europe: people are taking holidays at home. In France this has been especially pronounced because many families have homes of their parents or grandparents in the country or near the sea, and go there for a few weeks each year. Many others stay with relatives or swap houses. So the net balance of payments in tourism for France (which has generally been positive) has benefited. Very good, eh?

    Well, not so fast, because domestic tourism and foreign tourism don’t take place in the same areas or in the same fashion. At the moment, a lot of the infrastructure and the workforce are in the wrong place. So in Paris, and some of the towns that attract foreign tourists (Reims, Strasbourg, Tours etc) there’s an infrastructure geared to high volume, short term tourism by first-time tourists. But whilst French people go to these places, they don’t do so in great numbers. They are more like to rent a cottage for a few weeks, stay with friends and family or spend a bit of time in that cottage in Brittany that the family inherited from Uncle Yann. And instead of going abroad as well, they’ll stay three or four weeks in the same place. What that meant in practice, this year and last year, is that certain areas, like the Atlantic Coast, are now completely saturated. I was listening last year to the Mayor of the island where I was staying explaining that they year-round population there is about 5000. In summer, for short periods of time the population goes up to 20 or 25,000 and they can cope with that. Last year, he said that the average in the summer was 45,000, and one of the shopkeepers told me that it reached 50,000 on some days. Life became impossible, and even things like fresh water began to look iffy. That seems to be the story along the whole coast, with massive traffic jams and whole towns overrun with tourists. And this in an area where public transport and infrastructure has been cut in recent years, in favour of the big cities.

    If this continues – and I’m convinced that foreign tourism as we have known it is not coming back – then there’s a lot of rethinking to do, and a lot of infrastructure and a lot of personnel, in the wrong place. How cities which have built their economies on tourism will manage is an interesting question.

    1. KLG

      I’ve called it the Grauniad off and on since learning the term from a coworking English scientist in 1975. But really, did the paper ever really spell it that way? Perhaps when the Manchester Guardian was worth reading?

      1. David

        It was called the Grauniad in the days of hot metal and Linotype because of the very frequent, and often quite funny, misprints. There were actually jokes when I was young that there was a Misprints Dept responsible for putting them in, there were so many. These days, I think most people use it out of habit or out of exasperation with what has happened to something that used to be a great newspaper.

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