Sun, sea and virus: el turismo in trouble

Compiled by BAS editor Robin Wallis

There is no shortage of online metrics to illustrate the pummelling that the Spanish-speaking world has taken from the pandemic.  Canning House has been a particularly insightful source, with its regular webinars on all things Latin American. 

Before looking at the tourism impact, a brief overview of the bigger picture in the region.

Between June and September, 43% of global Covid-19 deaths occurred in Latin America.  By proportion of population, the world’s twelve worst affected countries included six from Latin America (the order was Peru, Belgium, Andorra, Spain, the UK, Chile, Brazil, Italy, the US, Sweden, Mexico, Panama and Bolivia).  Endemic vulnerabilities worsen the situation, such as the number of families having to queue for water at public stands in the shantytowns or depending on a daily wage to buy food.  Education has been disrupted and investment is down.  Per capita GDP is likely to be set back ten years. 

Globally, tourism accounts for one tenth of GDP and one tenth of employment (330 million jobs).  In Latin America in 2019 it generated almost 300 billion dollars and 17 million jobs.  It’s estimated that, if the recovery starts in 2021, it will take until 2025 to return to these levels. 

In Spain, Covid-19 and its associated travel restrictions meant that in August (usually the peak month of the season, but this year no better than July) fewer than 2.5 million tourists arrived, compared to over 10 million in August 2019 – a decline of 76%.  Only a quarter of a million UK visitors went to Spain in August this year – two million less than in August 2019.  The 2020 total number of arrivals to the end of August amounted to 15 million, as against 58 million for the same period in 2019.  Spain’s travel sector is crying out for a hefty share of the EU reconstruction package.s

Passenger confidence is the key element of a recovery, and fluctuates with each new headline and government pronouncement.  Over the summer potential European passengers were more comfortable about flying within Europe than long-haul.  Unpredictable border closures and the quarantine ‘roulette’ have been a nightmare for airlines.The lack of an international standard testing regime added to the gloom.  Air Europa, for example, which flew to 23 Latin American destinations before the pandemic, in July 2020 resumed a reduced service to Sao Paolo and Havana only, with the possibility of returning this year to Buenos Aires and Bogotá.

Holiday insurance is another key factor.  The Canary Islands and the Dominican Republic are two popular destinations where the authorities issued some sort of health guarantee for visitors, the latter putting in place a comprehensive state-funded travel assistance package extending until December.  However, health problems cut both ways: tourists bring virus spikes, as holiday spots like Trinidad and the Bahamas have recently found out. 

The silver lining?  Ninety percent of passengers are determined to resume travelling as soon as the pandemic abates (ie post-vaccination).  ‘Travel always bounces back stronger from a crisis,’ says Colin Stewart of the Latin America Travel Group. 

One positive effect of the hiatus is that it gives areas suffering from over-tourism (in the Spanish context, Barcelona and Mallorca in particular) the chance to modify their offer during the rebuilding phase.  Another positive has been the opportunity for innovation, such as ‘workcations’ or even ‘schoolcations’ offered by some Mexican resorts, allowing office workers and students the chance to stay connected online while enjoying the benefits of being in a holiday resort rather than an urban lockdown back home.  Complementary to this is the creation of a ‘golden visa’ in Costa Rica, allowing online workers to stay for a full year.  Such innovations have tended to boost villa rentals rather than the hotel sector of the holiday market, and have encouraged the provision of new services such as bicycle hire and food delivery. 

The Bulletin would appreciate hearing first-hand travel stories from any readers who live in the Spanish-speaking world or are travelling through it during the forthcoming half-term or end of year holidays.

*For over 75 years, Canning House’s Mission has been to build understanding and relationships between the UK, Latin America & Iberia. It is the UK’s leading forum for contacts, thought-leadership and pragmatic debate on Latin American political, economic and social trends and issues, and business risks and opportunities.

Learn more about Canning House and its programme of upcoming events by visiting