I have to admit that when I was thinking about what I was going to share with you in this month's article I was feeling a little deflated. It seemed 'tone deaf' to talk about an international destination, ignoring the ongoing 'pandemic' of covid cases, and the impact this is having on our lives, work and of course, upon our travel dreams and plans.
So, instead I'm taking a look at our region and how the travel and hospitality sector is gearing up for summer. In preparing for this piece, I reached out to a few people in the industry to capture their perspective of where we might be headed. I was blown away by the optimism and resilience I discovered. They shared hope that is clearly based on realism, grounded in years of experience in serving travellers and tourists. These are unprecedented times, but the sector clearly believes innovation, focus on clients' evolving needs, and a positive attitude will win through. In addition, the vaccine roll-out and the UK's 'lockdown roadmap' could help Malaga province have a much better summer season that initially expected.
But before I look at the good news, here's the bad news. In short, unreliable 'travel corridors', growing red lists, self-isolation, obligatory quarantine hotels, expensive PCR tests, and controversial vaccine passports have all combined to create the perfect storm that has battered travel and tourism.
Even the most optimistic now recognise that international travel might never be the same. With countries across the world, including the UK and Australia banning all leisure travel, and most other nations offering very limited travel corridors, global mobility and the multi-trillion euro travel industry that supported millions of jobs has been hobbled.
Despite the significant impact of these unprecedented restrictions (felt especially in tourism-dependent regions like Malaga province) they have been tolerated. As citizens in a wider community, we accept them as necessary sacrifices to protect national health services and most importantly the vulnerable members of our societies.
Beyond the economic impact upon all the households that relied on tourism income, it can be argued that there is a social cost of banning leisure travel too. This isn't just about missing out on the fun of a summer holiday or a romantic weekend break.
In our globalised world, many of us have loved ones living in a different country or even a continent away. Long-haul travel will of course come back, but not any time soon, and when it does it will undoubtedly be more expensive. The Covid-era has dragged even the most technology- and camera- shy executives onto Zoom and other online virtual meeting platforms, so it's unlikely that business travel (which was the mainstay of airlines' profits) will ever return to its peak. Add to that the 50 or more airline bankruptcies during the last year and it's likely that taking a flight, even in economy, will in the medium term a lot more expensive.
Where travel is permitted, with limited 'corridors', it comes with the obligation to show a negative PCR test; the cost of which can make a family holiday unaffordable for many.
So, the present obstacles are keeping all but the most adventurous at home.
Now the good news
Ok, so here's the good news I promised. There is clearly a huge 'pent up' demand for travel that when it is realised will contribute to a rapid rebound, helping Malaga province recuperate. If anything, the ups and downs of last year's travel showed us that if a destination is open, and an airline is flying then people will travel. Green shoots can appear swiftly. Everything changes very quickly once travel is permitted.
This, combined with wider immunisation against Covid-19, promises better times ahead. Russia, UK, Israel, and the USA were among the first off the starting blocks, quick to invest in vaccine research, place orders with pharmaceutical firms and create an infrastructure for mass, rapid vaccination.
Last week the UK government announced that after a review scheduled for the end of May, international leisure travel might well be possible. In addition, the UK government has said all British adults will have been offered a vaccine by the end of July 2021. This is great news, as the UK tourists are crucial to the revival of the Costa del Sol's hospitality sector, and all the employment and wealth it creates in southern Spain.
What's more, the EU might catch up on vaccines. Here in the south of Spain, the Junta de Andalucía this month published bold targets to vaccinate some 500,000 people a week. So, if countries cooperate and allow mobility, then we could see Brits back spending money here in Andalucía from August and September onwards.
That hope, combined with a potentially strong domestic and EU market, is driving a reopening programme across our region and beyond. Our local flagship hotels, including Finca Cortesín, Kempinski, and Anantara will all open their doors again in March.
Jorge Manzur, the General Manager at Anantara Villa Padierna Palace Benahavís, explained to me that his team has been "working hard in elevating the guest experience during the closure period over the winter". He continued, "We're optimistic about the coming season and expect to accomplish better results than last summer due to the fact that travellers are much more willing to travel now, as they are familiar with how to avoid potential risks. We are also following the vaccination plans with much hope. Initially we expect travellers mainly from Spain but also from other markets such us UK, Benelux, central European countries, and Scandinavia. I am afraid we do not foresee the recovery of long-haul visitors until the last quarter of '21."
Talking to Sam Lister, Founder of Tailormade Andalucía, a business that crafts authentic experiences and private holidays in Spain, I found he echoed these sentiments about the coming year: "...the recent buzz of client enquiries has lifted my spirits," he says. "Whilst there is still a large degree of uncertainty, it does appear that the fog is beginning to clear! Vaccinations are giving people more confidence to travel in a not-so-distant future. They are beginning to dream again and wanting to set finite travel dates.
We don't expect long-haul clients from North America and Australasia this summer. In the meantime, we're looking forward to welcoming back UK and EU visitors, and we've created experiences and tailormade packages that will really capture their imagination!"
During the pandemic hotels and restaurants have had to be extremely resourceful to survive. Marbella Club has, while restrictions allowed, remained open throughout, and is recognising new travel trends.
Alejandra García, Public Relations Manager for the hotel, explained to me that the hotel has "reconnected with Spanish and local guests over the past year and they've reminded us what a significant part of our identity they are. So far in 2021 (and increasingly so as the vaccination programme around the world continues to roll out) the biggest trend we are seeing is that of long stays. International guests from the UK, US and Nordic countries looking to buy into not just the Mediterranean lifestyle, but what the Marbella Club can particularly offer them in terms of flexible beachfront workspaces in discreet and fully serviced villas, family and wellness-related options as an integral part of the experience, and in-house medical care to provide ongoing safety and wellbeing."
Fay Wallis is co-founder of Marbella-based My Local Concierge. She confirms that the secret is definitely to be primed and ready for when travel bounces back. "We are ready to handle last-minute requests and have also worked on our more retreat-style holiday itineraries. Our clients are often impulsive by nature and don't have the budget restrictions that other travellers may need to consider, so we are confident that when travel restrictions ease ... we will have confirmed reservations within days!"
Patrick Ingram is Group Managing Director of CLC World, Europe's largest independent resort operator with properties across the world, including here on the Costa del Sol, a favourite for Brits. He explained, "With the exception of the mandatory lockdown in Spain last year, CLC World has remained open to guests. We are primed and ready, across all our resorts on the Costa del Sol and globally, to welcome back the many thousands of holidaymakers who would normally stay with us as soon as travel regulations permit. Given the current vaccine roll-out, we certainly anticipate larger volumes of tourists than in 2020. Our best estimate is that travel will gradually open up with many European tourists looking to book for the summer months."
Torremolinos was Spain's pioneering mass tourism destination and continues to invest to stay relevant in today's market. The town hall has worked with the hospitality sector to further enhance their 'Safe Tourism' health and safety initiative and be ready for the important Easter and summer seasons. The town hall remains upbeat about this year's prospects, telling me, "We think that this summer will be the beginning of the recovery of tourism in Torremolinos. We face it with optimism and hope. We are eager for visitors to return to our streets and to our beaches. Seeing the rapid vaccination in the United Kingdom, we believe that we will be able to receive many British tourists this summer, and we hope that by summer 70% of the Spanish population will be vaccinated too."
So, as I sign off for another month, I feel more hopeful about Malaga's tourism bounce-back!