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Coronavirus: Millions of holiday plans threatened as Spain warns of possible tourism disruption

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Spain's economy is heavily reliant on tourism - and has been devastated by the pandemic
Spain's economy is heavily reliant on tourism - and has been devastated by the pandemic   -   Copyright  Ramon Espinosa/AP
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Holiday plans for millions of people could be put on hold after suggestions Spain might not be ready for a normal tourism season until the end of summer.

Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez has suggested the country would be "progressively better prepared" to welcome foreign tourists once 70% of its citizens have been vaccinated against COVID-19 - a goal he estimates won't be reached until much later this year.

"Only mass vaccination will open the way to normality that we want," he said on Wednesday, during a speech at the World Tourism Organization conference in Madrid.

"The government is working to vaccinate at the highest possible rate... to reach the end of the summer with 70%, which will allow Spain to be progressively better prepared to receive international tourists."

Adding assurances, he said Spain was the "ninth country in the world" for vaccination rates, "and one of the first in Europe".

This speech has since been interpreted by some as meaning a blanket ban on tourism until 70% of Spaniards are vaccinated - but ministers have clarified the position.

"Our priority in 2021 is to reactivate tourism activity and resume safe mobility globally as soon as possible," said tourism minister Reyes Maroto on Friday.

"We are working to adopt a common framework of predictable action to give confidence to tourists and we hope that at the end of spring, and especially in summer, that international travel will resume and that people will choose Spain."

Juan González-Barba, the secretary of state for the EU, added that hope was "much greater" now for the summer season, saying he hoped travel would "begin to recover, if not be comparable, to the season before the pandemic".

He did, however, highlight that COVID-19 "can surprise at any time" - although added that vaccination rates would continue to increase, especially after Easter.

Yves Herman/AP
Pedro Sanchez has increased vaccinations will allow Spain to welcome tourists backYves Herman/AP

How important is this for Spain?

Very. The Spanish tourism sector employs around 2.6 million people and accounts for 12% of the country's GDP.

In 2019, 10 million tourists travelled to Spain during the month of July alone. Compare this to the 2.5 million visitors in July 2020 - that's a 75% drop. The worst months in May and June, however, saw no international tourists at all.

At the time, one industry expert estimated the sector had lost an average €5 billion a week since the first virus outbreak in March. Takings in the first five months of 2020 had also been down by 62%.

"We are exposed and we are fragile," said María Frontera, the president of the Hotel Business Federation of Mallorca, as she also criticised the recent comments from Sanchez.

Frontera said the "dramatic situation" for Spain's tourism sector meant there was now a growing need for fast vaccination plans, removal of travel blocks, and good communication overall - all with the aim creating safe travel opportunities and avoiding another year of devastating blows to the industry.

She added: "It is not admissible that the president of the government himself, instead of launching a clear, forceful and calm message to contribute to tourism recovery, does not calibrate his words well in a public situation."

Emilio Morenatti/AP
Spain lost billions last year due to the impact coronavirus restrictions had on tourismEmilio Morenatti/AP

Meanwhile, Marie Audren, the director general of Europe's Association of Hotels, Restaurants, Pubs and Cafes (HOTREC), told Euronews she hoped the EU could decide on coordinated measures to deal with much of the uncertainty around the summer season.

She said: "The priority remains the fight against the virus, this is very clear. Yet, together with many businesses in the tourism sector we are very concerned by the lack of perspective to be able to start up business again and that travellers have confidence again in travelling.

"This is why we are calling at EU level on Member States to continue their discussion for agreeing coordinated measures. We hope very much that the vaccination will speed up across Europe and help to prepare for the day after."

What's the COVID situation?

On Thursday, the nation's daily case record was beaten for a second consecutive day, with another 44,357 new infections reported. A further 404 people died, bringing the total toll to more than 55,000.

Spain, like much of Europe, is currently in the midst of battling a severe winter wave of the virus, while trying to fend off, or control, new variants that are much more transmissible, and potentially more deadly.

Hospital admissions have also doubled in the last few weeks, crippling healthcare services, and leaving doctors overwhelmed.

On the brighter side, however, Spain has vaccinated just over 1 million people to date, with daily rates expected to increase.

Alvaro Barrientos/AP
More than a million people have been vaccinated in SpainAlvaro Barrientos/AP

Should I wait to book a holiday?

That's ultimately up to the holidaymaker, bearing in mind the uncertainty and the ups and downs in the pandemic. However, it appears some travel companies are also taking this uncertainty into account.

Speaking to Euronews, a spokesperson for the British-German package holiday company TUI said it would allow flexibility for alterations as its customers were still booking holidays for summer.

"We know how much our customers value their summer holidays, possibly now more than ever, and our current booking data shows people are booking for summer now so they have something to look forward to," the spokesperson said.

"We also know how much uncertainty there is around travel at the moment, so we’re offering as much flexibility as we can with free amends to bookings made before 28th February as well as our TUI Holiday Promise.

"We can’t wait to take our customers away again when it’s safe to do so."