The tourism industry has fallen into a coma on the Costa del Sol. The sector has failed to recover its pulse after 100 days of forced closure during the Covid-19 lockdown. The state of alarm declared by the Spanish government in mid-March came after just two months of normality in 2020; and those would ordinarily be the quietest months of the year.
The long-awaited peak season failed to meet expectations and only worsened the crisis caused by the pandemic. The sector has had to face the costs of reopenings, which can be more stressful than initial inaugurations themselves, with the complication of having to follow strict health and hygiene protocols to guarantee the safety of staff and guests.
Safety was a priority and was the industry's only mission accomplished in the pandemic: zero Covid-19 contagion in tourist establishments on the Costa del Sol.
The industry now faces a final quarter of the year with closures across the board, affecting 80 per cent of hotels.
"We can consider this year to be dead," said a concerned president of the Costa del Sol hoteliers association (Aehcos), Luis Callejón Suñé, last week.
A look at the figures for the year confirms the dreary prognosis. Tourist accommodation as a whole - that is, hotels, campsites, holiday lets and rural cottages - lost 3.4 million visitors and 14 million nights compared with the same period of 2019.
Between January and August no more than 1.8 million visitors stayed in tourist accommodation, compared with the 5.2 million in 2019. Those 1.8 million visitors checked in for 6.5 million nights, far from the 20.5 million registered in the same period of 2019, according to figures from Spain's National Institute of Statistics (INE) quoted by the Costa del Sol tourism authority.
And to get a better idea of the size of the disaster, for hotel accommodation, the 1.4 million visitors arriving in the first eight months of 2020 is the equivalent of the total for the month of March alone last year.
The occupancy of the Costa's hotels has fallen to an average of 37% of rooms booked between January and August, compared with 62.7% in the same period of 2019. And that is even taking into account the price war unleashed by panicking hoteliers at the height of the season.
The statistics also show how the pandemic has affected the profitability of hotels. This was an issue that the industry had only recently managed to recover from, following the financial crisis that led to prices being frozen for a decade.
The RevPAR figures (Revenue Per Available Room), a gauge used to measure hotel profitability, confirm that the sector has gone back to where it was in the crisis.
Profitability has fallen 44%, going from an average of 71.4 euros between January and August 2019, to 39.8 euros in the same period of 2020. Prices have plummeted, going from an average price per room of 124.64 euros in August 2019, to 50.9 euros in August 2020.
While the hotel sector is one of the most affected, among other reasons due to the high maintenance costs and volume of workers needed, the holiday rental market has witnessed the bursting of the bubble that was swelling healthily before the start of the pandemic.
The president of the Andalusian Association of Tourist Properties (AVVA), Carlos Pérez-Lanzac, said that, while official figures are not available, the sector has seen its revenue fall by 80%, causing losses of 70 million euros in the province of Malaga so far this year.
"In the summer we managed to reach 56% occupancy, when the forecasts indicated 45%. However, you have to bear in mind that around 10% of properties have switched from holiday lets to long-term rentals and a similar number have not been operative at all. What's more, prices this peak season have fallen by between 30 and 40%," he said.
The paralysis in demand has been felt at Malaga Airport where activity has been concentrated in just one terminal during the pandemic, first in T2 and now in T3.
More than 9.5 million fewer passengers used the airport in the first eight months of the year of 2020 than the volume for the same period of 2019. No more than 4.1 million passengers travelled on 41,756 flights from January to August this year, compared with the almost 100,000 flights recorded in 2019, which transported more than 13,650,000 passengers.
In September the passenger figures fell to just over 366,000, 82% down on the same month of 2019.
Meanwhile, the cruise terminal at Malaga Port has received no visitors for more than six months. It is expected that the year will end with no more than 40 ships visiting the port, far from the 278 registered in 2019.
Cruise passenger figures have plummeted 90% to 40,172 in the first quarter of the year, according to figures provided by the port.
The crisis has been felt more by the tourism industry on the Costa del Sol due to its greater dependence on international visitors than other areas, the former president of Exceltur, José Luis Zoreda, told SUR.
Figures from the survey of frontier movements carried out by the INE show that in the first eight months of this year only 2.3 million foreigners travelled to the region of Andalucía, that is, 72.6% fewer than in January to August 2019, when 8.3 million visitors arrived in the region.
In the same eight months of 2019, the eight Andalusian provinces received a revenue of 8.5 billion euros from international tourism; this year the figure has stopped at 2.4 billion: a drop of 71.5%.
Now, with the poor peak season behind us, experts agree that the worst is still to come. The lack of demand is likely to continue as business owners dread having to start to pay back the ICO loans which have been keeping their heads above water since March.
There is now uncertainty about whether they will be able to reopen at Easter and even about what will happen in summer 2021, with schedules yet to be signed with tour operators. In just a few weeks' time the industry would be heading for the World Travel Market (WTM) in London, which has been cancelled and replaced by a virtual version, where they would normally close these deals.
Nevertheless the sector is convinced that the Costa del Sol will survive the crisis. To do this it is already adapting to the circumstances and preparing to have rapid Covid tests for visitors and insurance policies to cover the expenses of catching Covid-19 while on holiday, as well as coming up with products and experiences that generate trust and break the fear that is preventing visitors from enjoying the Costa del Sol.