Infection surges force countries to curb European travel

European tour operators responded with dismay to new curbs on travel imposed by countries following a string of local upsurges in coronavirus infections, dealing a blow to hopes of a revival in the global tourism industry.

Spain’s tourism sector is in particular feeling the brunt of the latest caution, prompting an angry response from Madrid. “Spain is a safe country,” said foreign minister Arancha González Laya.

Her comments came after the UK government said on Saturday night that Britons on holiday in Spain would be required to self-isolate for two weeks upon their return, following a spike in infections in three Spanish regions.

France reacted in similar fashion, with the French prime minister Jean Castex saying on Friday that he “strongly advised” against travel to Spain’s north-eastern region of Catalonia, one of the places that has seen a big surge in Covid-19 cases.

France also said that any travellers arriving from a list of 16 countries from outside the EU where coronavirus is “circulating very strongly” would be subject to mandatory testing at French airports and ports. For passengers coming from four of those countries, including the US, France is asking that a negative test taken three days before flying is presented before boarding.

Germany has also seen a fresh uptick in Covid-19 cases in recent days, which health minister Jens Spahn attributed to travellers returning from certain regions such as the West Balkans and Turkey. He said authorities were considering whether to force travellers to take a coronavirus test upon their return home.

There have been more than 16m confirmed cases of coronavirus in 188 countries, and more than 640,000 people have lost their lives. The World Health Organization reported a record number of 284,196 cases on Friday and 284,083 on Saturday — the highest volume since the start of the pandemic.

The latest uptick in cases in Europe appears to have coincided with the start of the summer tourist season. The surge highlights the dilemma facing policymakers: on one hand they fear reimposing a shutdown that has devastated their economies, but on the other they worry the return of mass travel will trigger a second wave of the pandemic.

Ms González Laya said it was “not unusual” for Spain to suffer outbreaks of Covid-19, “like other European countries”. “Most importantly, Spain is making a great effort to control these outbreaks, a huge effort to identify cases in which people are positive for coronavirus,” she said.

The three places where an uptick in infections has been identified — Barcelona, Zaragoza and Lleida — were “all [being] controlled”, she added.
She said Spain was in talks with the UK government about excluding the Balearic and Canary Islands from the quarantine measures and “we hope that all these contacts will bear fruit soon”.

Tourists drag their luggage through Catalonia square in Barcelona. A surge in coronavirus cases has caused some reservation cancellations © Quique Garcia/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock

The UK decision was also sharply criticised by the travel industry. “The UK government must work closely with the travel industry as this level of uncertainty and confusion is damaging for business and disappointing for those looking forward to a well-deserved break,” said Tui, Europe’s largest tourism group.

Tui said it would give a full refund to any customers who had been due to travel to Spain between July 27 and August 9 — or it would allow holidaymakers to rebook holidays with a “booking incentive”. It said it would not cancel holidays to the Balearic or Canary Islands as travel was still permitted there despite the quarantine measures being put in place.

Spain is the UK’s most popular package holiday destination, welcoming about 18m British tourists each year.

TravelSupermarket, the UK-based travel website, said the UK move to oblige tourists returning from Spain to go into self-isolation “will cause a further shredding of consumer confidence, ruined holidays, a further economic blow and employee quarantine nightmares”.

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Other European countries began to impose their own restrictions. Greece announced that travellers arriving by plane from Romania and Bulgaria from Tuesday will only be allowed to board their flight if they have a test certificate showing they tested negative for coronavirus 72 hours before getting on the plane.

Both countries have seen a surge in coronavirus cases this month, with new Covid-19 infections increasing fourfold in Romania and by 50 per cent in Bulgaria.

Hoteliers in Halkidiki and Platamonas, northern Greek beach resorts that are popular with holidaymakers from the Balkans and central Europe, said cancellations have jumped in the past two weeks.

Additional reporting by David Keohane in Paris, Kerin Hope in Athens, Ian Mount in Madrid and Peter Wise in Lisbon

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