Spain opened its borders to vaccinated travellers from all over the world on Monday, hoping an influx of visitors will revitalise an all-important tourism sector that has been battered by the coronavirus pandemic.
The opening kicks off what many are hoping will be a busy summer tourism season in Europe as vaccine rates pick-up across the continent.
On Monday morning, with the mercury already high, tourists from Germany, Ireland and Belgium could be seen passing through the arrival gates at Malaga airport.
At least 20 international flights landed in the morning at the most important tourist gateway in the southern Andalusia region.
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Visitors arriving in the sun-soaked Spanish resort of Malaga were happy to finally be able to hit the beach after more than a year of lockdown misery.
“We’re thrilled, delighted. We love Spain, the sun, the food and everything about it,” said Irish holidaymaker Gillian Ford, who arrived from rainy Dublin having had her second vaccination.
“You only live once so you need to get out of here and enjoy,” she said before heading off to the beaches of Marbella with her husband Edward.
Under the new rules, Spain from Monday is allowing visitors in who have been fully vaccinated for at least 14 days.
Non-vaccinated Europeans — who could previously enter Spain with a negative PCR test taken within 72 hours can now take a cheaper antigen test within the past 48 hours instead.
For some, the new rules allowed for long-overdue trips.
“I haven’t been out of Belgium for a year,” said Rose Huo, a 73-year-old Belgian who came to spend a month with her sister.
“Everyone is happy I think. We are still very careful but it’s a start,” she said.
– Hopeful for recovery –
Heavily dependent on its tourism industry, Spain was one of the Western economies worst hit by the pandemic, seeing a 10.8 per cent fall in its GDP in 2020.
The Spanish government has set an objective of drawing 45 million travellers by the end of the year.
But by the end of April, the country had only seen 1.8 million visitors, according to official statistics.
Regardless, those in the tourism sector are still hoping for a summer surge of visitors.
Jose Luis Prieto, president of Spain’s travel agents’ union (Unav) is hoping for a “spectacular recovery” after a punishing year.
According to him, over the last few weeks tour operators in Britain, France and Germany — Spain’s three main markets — have been receiving a large number of enquiries.
Across the country, from the Costa del Sol to the Canary Islands, hotels and restaurants have reopened after months of closures, and airlines have restarted routes dropped during the height of the pandemic.
Spain will also begin allowing cruise boats into its ports again from Monday.
– ‘Disappointing’ UK rules –
Despite Spain’s easing of measures, the United Kingdom, a huge tourism market for the country, has not yet removed Spain from its list of at-risk countries.
That means British travellers will have to quarantine on their return home as well as pay for expensive Covid-19 tests.
The British normally make up the largest contingent of tourists to Spain — in 2019 over one-fifth of Spain’s 83.5 million arrivals were from the United Kingdom.
Britain’s decision to keep Spain on its amber list was, however, “disappointing”, Health Minister Carolina Darias said.
Spain had put several measures in place to lure British tourists to its shores, such as allowing them to enter without having to present a PCR test from late May.
Against the backdrop of uncertainty, major travel operator TUI has cancelled all its flights to Spain until June 13.
London will not revisit its decision for another three weeks, losing precious time for those in the hospitality sector hoping to recover.