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Coronavirus could wreak havoc on Spain's tourism industry

Laura Vilaca Seville
March 30, 2020

The sun may be shining in Spain but most areas look like ghost towns. Shuttered shops and police patrols now dominate the streets. This doesn't sound like your typical Costa del Sol brochure.

Two men having a drink on their terrace in Seville
Image: DW/L. Vilaça

Alberto Piñar was born and bred in Seville. The 28-year old has been self-employed for five years now. He lives on his own in the center of the southern Spanish city, but managed to get to his parents house on the outskirts just in time before the lockdown. "There's more room here to work, and at least I'm not alone," Piñar said.

The coronavirus outbreak has hit Spain in the solar plexus. At over 85,000 cases and just over 7,300 dead (as of Monday), it's the second-hardest hit country in Europe. To control the spread of the virus, the Spanish government declared a mandatory lockdown, in force since March 16 and recently extended to April 12. People have since been confined to their homes; only able to leave to go grocery shopping, walk their dogs, attend to relatives in need or go to work if absolutely necessary.

For cartoonist Iratxe Fernández, who has a one-year-old toddler, the lockdown has meant a world of stress. Both she and her partner work full-time from home and take shifts to take care of their child. "My daughter is very dependent [on us]. It's hard to focus. Working full time and raising a kid are not compatible."

Fernandez is aware of her privileged situation (she lives in a relatively big flat with a balcony); she feels guilty for wanting more personal time. "We love our daughter immensely, so I feel bad when I crave some time alone. I think other people in my situation might feel the same."

Hundreds of kilometers away, in Madrid, Italian biologist Massimiliano Saladino is working from home but his continued employment in an assisted reproduction clinic is uncertain. "Technically today is my last day at work. No one knows what's going to happen." He's worried that he may be affected by Spain's temporary employment regulation. This allows companies to lay off workers throughout the lockdown.

Read moreShort-time work: A vital tool in Germany's economic armory against coronavirus

Spain's bedrock under attack

A truck fumigating a street in Seville
Seville's streets are empty save for the fumigating trucks that go out three times a dayImage: DW/S. Sáez Moreno

Unemployment is a major issue in Spain. The Ministry of Labor and Social Security reports of being "overwhelmed" by requests for unemployment benefits. The Iberian country's economy relies heavily on the services and tourism industries and is expected to face an intense financial crisis. Both sectors are currently paralyzed.

Around 5 million people, or 12% of the population, work in the tourism industry. In 2019, around 84 million tourists visited Spain — the sector accounts for around 14% of GDP. Losses from the missed Easter break period "are expected to be over €30 billion ($33 billion)," tourism expert Pablo Díaz of the Open University of Catalonia said. "If the lockdown reaches summer time, losses are expected to double."

Even if the contagion is controlled within Spain, tourists from other countries are unlikely to travel anytime soon. Visitors from France, Germany, the UK and the Nordic countries form the largest group of tourists, but those countries are still working on measures to deal with the pandemic. "It's likely that Italians will visit Spain once the lockdown is revoked, because they've had a similar number of cases but, as Northern countries experienced a smaller impact, they are likely to avoid the region for some time," Díaz said.

Adequate government action?

Spain has seen a massive increase in the number of coronavirus infections, which jumped from 14,500 cases on March 18 to just over 80,000 on March 30. Why the infections have spread so fast might have to do with a delayed response from the government but it doesn't entirely explain the situation.

Read moreOpinion: How many deaths can we afford?

"That Spain is the second most hit country in Europe is incidental. It could have been any other. Epidemiology is not an exact science and it's difficult to foresee why a disease hits some countries harder than others," Evangelina Martich, an associate professor at the University Carlos III and researcher in public health policies, said.

Once a country enters the spiral of rapid contagion, it becomes a race to protect the health-care system from crashing. "No system is prepared for such an influx of patients, not even the world's best. I think the Spanish system is responding quite well to the challenge and the government has taken steps to protect it from overloading, such as postponing regular checkups or non-essential surgeries," Martich said.

However, in the end, prevention is a political issue; governments make decisions when they can enforce them and must balance financial losses with lockdown measures. Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez managed to form a minority government earlier this year — but his power is tenuous. Traumatized by the deep impact of the 2008 financial crisis, Spain is a hotbed for discontent over measures that weaken the economy.

Read moreWill Spain's new governing coalition succeed in triggering economic change?

People clapping from their balconies in Seville
Spaniards show their appreciation for health-care workers but also their disdain for the government's actionsImage: DW/S. Sáez Moreno

"I think the government did the best it can," Saladino said. Not everyone agrees. Some people are expressing dissatisfaction with politics from their balconies, banging their pots and pans at 9 p.m. on scheduled protest days.

Politics aside, Martich believes speed is of the essence. During a pandemic, public health systems have two stages of reaction: first, prevention; then, treatment. "Spain adopted strict measures to limit contagion. Maybe the government could have reacted sooner but they adopted the right procedures. Lacking a cure, the best is to decree a lockdown," Martich said.

As the lockdown reaches week three, people are starting to feel the impact of prolonged confinement. However, morale is sustained by a spirit of community. Funny memes floating around the web; people shopping for more at-risk neighbors, and daily appreciation for health workers make the coronavirus seem less scary.

Spanish life on lockdown