Streets and Plazas in Barcelona Still Eerily Quiet as Covid-Chaos Upends Tourism

“Everybody’s drinking beer as if there were no tomorrow, but my bar can barely survive off beer sales alone,” says Yahya, owner of one of my favorite bars.

By Nick Corbishley, for WOLF STREET:

Tourists from the EU’s Schengen countries could begin arriving in Spain from June 21 and Spain’s borders were officially opened on July 1. Since then, international visitors have begun returning, in drips and drabs. Most people are loath to fly or travel far from home, in case there are fresh outbreaks or new lockdowns. To compound matters, people from over 100 non-European countries are still banned from traveling to the EU.

In Barcelona, the streets and plazas are still eerily quiet. On Friday, my wife, mother-in-law, and I had dinner on a friend’s roof terrace overlooking the mid-section of the Ramblas where the Miró painting is — the exact spot where the truck that mowed down scores of pedestrians in the August 2017 terrorist attack finally stopped. When we arrived, at 8:30, the iconic street, which is normally heaving with tourists, was quieter than normal. By midnight (as you can see in the photo below), it was almost empty. An hour later, as we flagged down a taxi to take us home, there were more beer vendors, prostitutes, drug dealers and pickpockets lining the street than there were punters.

In a July 3 article, Der Spiegel described Majorca as a “ghost island.” Long accustomed to being swamped by German, British and other European tourists in the hot summer months, the island is an “oasis of calm”, the article says. It’s a “long awaited dream for some” and “a nightmare for others.”

It was a stark reminder of just how punishing a reality the so-called “New Normal” is for those who carve out a living in the informal economy. But it’s not that much better in the formal economy. Just 60 of Barcelona’s 440 hotels are open with occupancy between 15% and 20%, compared to over 80% in a normal July.

In 2019, Spain received a record 83.7 million international visitors. This year, according to Expansión, Spain will be lucky to receive 30 million.

In a delicious irony, many Airbnb hosts are desperately trying to rent out their over-priced tourist apartments or rooms to the same local residents they’ve been helping to price out of the market for the last few years. They’re not having much success. In most cases, the rents on offer are insanely high.

In one particularly egregious case, a six square-meter windowless bedroom was initially offered to rent for over €2,000. When there were no takers, the price was dropped to €1,300. Still no takers. It’s now being offered at €650, which is still insultingly high for what you get.

In the absence of tourists, most bars, restaurants and cafes are operating at around 50% capacity. Twenty percent of bars in Spain have still not reopened.

“I’m doing twice as much work for half the takings,” says Yahya, the owner of one of my favorite local bars. He has four workers on the payroll but only one of them is currently working — and that’s just part time. Yahya’s doing all the rest, which he says he doesn’t mind: he’s used to working long days. Food sales are down 70% compared to last year, but alcohol sales are picking up some of the slack.

“Everybody’s drinking beer as if there were no tomorrow but my bar can barely survive off beer sales alone,” especially as the financial pressures keep building, Yahya says.

“Most of my providers don’t want to sell on credit anymore, which is understandable; they have no way of knowing if or when they’ll get paid. But it doesn’t make my life any easier. I just paid four months of rent — for the price of three, thankfully,” he says. “And two quarters’ worth of taxes just came due.”

The problem is not just that there are fewer tourists; it’s that there are fewer big-spending tourists. As El País reports, since the EU “reopened” its borders two weeks ago, the list of nationalities allowed into the Schengen space has plunged to 15, from 105 before the pandemic. Among the nations left off the list are the United States, China, Russia, the Gulf States and most countries in Latin America — which together account for the vast majority of profligate visitors that keep (or kept) the luxury stores of Barcelona, Madrid and Marbella in business.

“The United States, Russia, Argentina and Mexico are of utmost importance because they are the tourists who spend the most,” says José Luis Zoreda, the vice-president of the tourism lobby Exceltur. In Catalonia, tourists from the US spend more than visitors from any other country.

Whether big or small, companies that have grown to depend on tourism are currently engaged in an existential struggle. This being the European Union, where up to 11% of the collected GDP derives directly from tourism (in Spain it’s 15%), compared to 2.6% in the U.S., the broader impact is likely to be brutal. The OECD has warned that in the most tourism-dependent regions of Southern Europe, from the Canary and Balearic Islands to the Algarve and Crete, unemployment could soon reach 40%.

Big companies, like Globalia — which owns airline Air Europa, travel agency Halcones Viajes, and hotel chain Be Live, all of which have been closed or operating well below capacity for four months — have the ear of ministers, presidents, and central bankers. For them, the impact can be softened with cheap or free bailout money. For small operators that depend for part or all of their business on tourists, it’s a different story. By Nick Corbishley, for WOLF STREET.

Europe may be about to find out what it means when businesses and consumers tighten their belts at the same time. 128 days with my Mother-in-Law. Read… What Happens If Most Businesses & Consumers Tighten Their Belts at the Same Time?

Enjoy reading WOLF STREET and want to support it? Using ad blockers – I totally get why – but want to support the site? You can donate. I appreciate it immensely. Click on the beer and iced-tea mug to find out how:

Would you like to be notified via email when WOLF STREET publishes a new article? Sign up here.

  66 comments for “Streets and Plazas in Barcelona Still Eerily Quiet as Covid-Chaos Upends Tourism

  1. JoAnn Leichliter says:

    On the other hand, didn’t I hear a while back that the local residents disliked all of those tourists? Win some, lose some…

    • robt says:

      Est modus in rebus. Too much or too little is not desired.
      The normal remedy for too many tourists is too many tourists, or as Yogi Berra may have said: Nobody goes there any more because it’s too crowded.

  2. MiTurn says:

    Stunning. A perfect storm.

    And if there’s a second wave in the fall…

    My heart goes to the locals who have seen their livelihoods disappear.

    • Sit23 says:

      I live in a tourist town. A lot of people are quite pleased with the total absence of foreign visitors due to our government’s reaction to Covid-19. If foreign owned hotels and restaurants go broke, we don’t actually care. If their foreign employees, here on temporary work visas have to go home, we don’t care. If the usual suspects who own most of the big tourist businesses aren’t doing so well, we don’t care. Less money and more spare time is not so bad!

      • carnifex says:

        I have never read such an absurd answer in my life. Tourism, although managed by foreigners, has an “induced”, that is, a set of related activities in which the country’s economy participates. The restaurant or hotel run by foreigners pays taxes in your country, buys materials and food in your country, makes people from your country work. Economic ignorance is the greatest evil of all time, incurable.

  3. Les Francis says:

    In other locations such as the antipodes, former tour economy workers who are being handsomely compensated by the federal government are rejoicing at the sight of no foreign tourists interrupting their local environment.

  4. Paulo says:

    Wow, glad you got out for an evening and for supper with friends.

    The threat and fear of Covid is palpable, and only disregarded by absolute fools. Hopefully, some more high profile politicians who tout unsafe practices will become infected and serve as a cautionary tale.

    My sister in law is a manager at a large grocery store in Courtenay, BC (Vancouver Island). Just over a week ago customers confronted some tourists from Florida (for chrissakes) in the parking lot. They were supposedly headed to Alaska, apparently hundreds of miles off route with a ferry ride to boot. Calls were made, and it took about 10 minutes for 4 RCMP to arrive and take them away. This is happening over and over in Canada. Meanwhile, campsites are full with local vacationers and while we have almost no new cases of Covid per day (maybe 10 for a population of 5 million), our Provincial Health Officer has laid down the warning, if there are any increases we will go back to restricted travel and more restrictions in general.

    It is just the way it has to be. As Dr Bonnie Henry says, “It isn’t forever, it is just for now”.

    The cases we do have, are almost all from bars. So as Nick reported from the bar owner, sales are down. Well here bars are mostly closed, with food sales allowing limited openings, provided social distancing and safe work practices are strictly enforced.

    Who goes to a bar to sit alone and be distant from others? No one, unless you are in the throes of depression.

    Here are the choices. Schools or bars? Travel or bars? Safety or bars? Health or bars? It won’t change until after vaccine and I doubt it will ever look the same as it did just 6 months ago.

    • Seneca’s Cliff says:

      How did the tourists from Florida get in? I thought the border was closed to the COVID-ridden denizens of the USA.

      • Joe says:

        They get in by saying they are heading straight to Alaska at the boarder. Any other excuse, they are turned away. It is what the federal government came up with.
        They are finding that many are not doing this and any visitors must isolate for 14 days by law due to health laws currently imposed. Heavy fines are being issued.

      • MiTurn says:

        Why are there Canadian tourists in my border town? I thought the border was closed too.

      • Danno says:

        Cdn gov’t is allowing US citizens in IF they travel DIRECTLY to Alaska.

        Do not pass go, do not collect $200.

      • td says:

        People are allowed to travel through Canada to get to Alaska and some people are scamming by taking side trips or not actually going all the way. If you get caught, there’s thousands in tickets and a supervised expulsion. Of course, your name also goes into the multinational database of people who lie at the border, which can result in future surprises.

        • Seneca's cliff says:

          I would advise the Canadians that if they get any more tourists from Florida or Texas or Arizona trying to pass through on the way to Alaska they weld the car doors closed as they enter the great white north, and advise the border patrol on the Alaska side to have a cutting torch ready for when the cross back over.

        • Rosebud says:

          Isn’t welding the doors on a convertible what Thomas Crown would do, so he could admire the woman jumping into the vehicle?

      • Robert St. Cyr says:

        They took a cue from their president – they lied.

    • Idiot Savant says:

      Okay, let me tell you about Florida and why we have spikes here. As a native Floridian I can assure you we have some fantastically strange people, however their behavior is not driving positive hit rates.

      Over the Memorial Day weekend we had people from all over the country flood our beaches. Next up- July 4th. On the 5th my wife and I were driving down I95 coming from NC and for hours watched a massive caravan crawling out of Florida. So who were these people? Folks from the northeast and all over the east coast trekked down to the beaches and then pointed in horror as the “irresponsible Floridians” were testing positive. Might they have brought the virus with them?

      People, for the most part, wear masks like good obedient prols in this state. Even when it’s 96 degrees with high humidity, the masks are strapped on. So please, enough with the Florida nonsense.

      The real question is this: Is there any critical thinking left in America? Is there anyone out there who can see past the sensational headlines and produce independent thought?

      • MarMar says:

        a) Outdoors is generally safe. The beaches are probably not the problem.
        b) A friend is in FL right now and says that at grocery stores and other businesses mask usage is only about 75%, a striking difference from the situation in other states where you won’t be let in the door without a mask.

      • Seneca's cliff says:

        In Oregon we closed down the beaches and campgrounds to keep out the virus infected tourists. Not sure why such foresight was not applied in Florida. It is not really important if it was bad behavior or bad luck but just the same Florida is now viewed by most people in the U.S. and the world as a Covid-19 ridden wasteland. Mongolia,despite being on the border with China, has managed to not have a single corona related death or internally transmitted case of Covid 19, while Florida is pushing 15,000 cases a day and 130 something deaths. Doesn’t seem to take a lot of critical thinking skills to add this one up.

        • Idiot Savant says:

          From the person believing statisfics from Mongolia. Haha!

        • char says:

          Mongolia is the type of country that has or zero cases or a gazillion. You can´t hide a gazillion so zero-ish cases is probably correct.

      • Rosebud says:

        Wolf, and friends, posting fresh banana in 3… 2… 1…

      • RightNYer says:

        I live in Fort Lauderdale, and a few weekends ago was in Sanibel Island. NOBODY was wearing masks, even inside stores. And idiots were crowding outdoor bars and restaurants like there was no pandemic.

      • R. Moran says:

        You need to go to Peak Prosperity. A little dose of Chris Martenson. You can by some Resilience, if you need some.

      • Robert St. Cyr says:

        If you look at the covid migration maps it’s pretty clear that there’s way more of it moving from Florida out than moving in.

    • sierra7 says:

      Paulo:
      U left out another choice:
      “No bars at all!”

  5. Putin on the Ritz says:

    Prostitutes, drug dealers and pickpockets…………..sounds like the politicians have adapted well to the new normal.

    • Crazy Chester says:

      Excellent!

      Don’t forget the lawyers. I hear they are walking around with their hands in their own pockets these days.

  6. Piperion Rodríguez says:

    Barcelona is great if you don’t mind the occasional spot of pickpocketing, mugging, robbery or rape. Or if you’re Moroccan and underage.

  7. Nicko2 says:

    Headline off Reuters right now; MADRID (Reuters) – Health authorities have ordered the culling of all 93,000 mink at a farm in eastern Spain to prevent human contagion after discovering that most of the animals there had been infected with the coronavirus.

    Grim. No desire to go to Spain any time soon (or anywhere else in Europe for that matter).

    • char says:

      Those minks also get covid and in the Netherlands there were a few cases where people got covid from minks.

      • Joe says:

        China has ask Canada for tests on lobsters to see if they may have the virus from the workers processing the lobsters.

    • Lisa_Hooker says:

      Apparently a fancy mink-trimmed mask is not a good idea.

    • fajensen says:

      Why not vaccinate the mink?

      After all, some of the vaccine prototypes are already tested in ferrets, which are kind a the same thing. If there are some minor side effects, nobody cares about asking the mink about it!

      • Implicit says:

        The minks caught a glance of their future as a coat, and depression lowered their immune systems.

      • char says:

        To difficult. Minks are not standard lab animals so knowledge about them is lacking. Also vaccines are not 100% Especially the covid ones. And if you have a 10000 mink farm and vaccine is 99% effective than it will still survive in those 100 minks and be a treat to humans

  8. doug says:

    Re:a six square-meter windowless bedroom for 650

    Nick, any idea what the owners’ carrying costs might be for that airbnb?
    One hell of drop in the asking rent.
    Sad to read about how bad it is for now, but thanks for the update.

  9. timbers says:

    Fortunately, we in the U.S. have figured out how to solve our problems:

    1). BLS disappears unemployment.

    2). Fed disappears inflation, prints money, gives to Wall Street, corporations, & the rich.

    3). NHS to now disappear the flu.

    Problems solved.

  10. MCH says:

    Nick,

    Very curious about how the government in Spain, but also Europe in general is getting by. Don’t know much about the European tax system, except that it’s higher than the US to enable a social safety net and it does a VAT that is broadly applicable. Assume each country’s system differ slightly from one another, but how are the governments functioning on what has to be reduced tax receipts.

    • char says:

      Tax is “higher” because a lot of health cost are paid by the state in the EU while those cost, which you are still forced to pay, are not paid by the state in the American system. It does not help your wallet but people can claim they pay less in taxes.

      ps. I wonder if the license fee you have to pay to the BBC is seen as a tax in the UK.

      • Frederick says:

        WHY would anyone actually pay money to watch that propaganda? Truly amazing how ridiculous people can be

        • char says:

          It is a choice in the same way that paying taxes on your beer is a choice

        • MCH says:

          You’d be surprised at how may Brits love the BBC for their ad free content. Functionally, the BBC isn’t too different from HBO, except of course, it is mandatory, but it is “quality programming.” I put that in quotes only because of interpretation people might have, there are certain BBC nature programs that are quite good.

          Imagine if there was a mandate that every household in the US must have a Netflix account. That would be funny. But hey, we have NPR and PBS, so it all evens out.

        • Olivier says:

          Here in Germany we have to pay a TV tax whether we own a TV or not. Before you could wiggle out of it if you didn’t own a TV but that was changed a few years ago. And if you are deaf or blind you only get a discount. It is a tax in all but name, one I hate with a fury. That abomination is called the Rundfunk­beitrag, if you want to look it up.

        • Zammo says:

          You need to pay the license fee if you wish to watch any live content, not just the BBC.

          Even if you only plan to watch live sports on an obscure channel from your iphone!

          It’s just that the majority of the fee goes to the BBC.

        • char says:

          @Oliver

          It made sense when not (almost) everybody had a tv. So early sixties.
          But do you like paying any other tax? I dont

        • Robert St. Cyr says:

          totally unlike the propaganda of fox and/or CNN depending on leaning – and they wind up getting public money through various backhanders and skulduggery. I’d much rather see up front where public money is going. Instead of public dollars going to public health systems and social safety nets in the US they go to the rich 1% – the figures are easy to read. Why does one of the richest nations in the world have the worst health care systems, high poverty, homelessness etc. This pandemic is likely to make things even worse because it is hitting those at the bottom more than those at the top – of course that’s the American way though – Trump is coming through on his promises – America is #1 – #1 in outbreak numbers, deaths – and if the division of ideology carries on there will soon be worse since Americans can’t talk to one another any more-

        • MC01 says:

          The BBC License Fee (considered a tax since 2006) is a funny thing: since the fine for not paying is “up to £1,000” (with the average fine being a measly £170, just a little more than the tax itself) the BBC spends far far more money looking for and persecuting non-payers than it gets back by fining them.
          This is especially true when the BBC applies for a search mandate, something they do only very very rarely given the associated costs, but the “detection technology” used by the BBC is extremely expensive (HM Government has a fascination for surveillance gadgets of dubious effectiveness but high price) and the funny thing is that if the suspected non-payer decides to challenge the fine (something that happens a few dozen times every year), evidence gathered using “detection technology” cannot be used in court.

  11. Just Some Random Guy says:

    Wait a second. The EU bans Americans from traveling and then Barcelona is shocked that tourism is down? I guess they don’t teach the concept of action and reaction in Europe anymore?

    • char says:

      Americans are not an important source of tourists in Barcelona

      • char says:

        And for every American tourist they would gain they would loose ten European tourist and one local would move. Bad deal

        • char says:

          They are numerically not big. Financially they are more important but even than not so big and it is more spend in the 2 Michelin star restaurants and 5 star hotels. People find it less bad if they don’t break even than a local bar.

      • MC01 says:

        There are no official data for properties listed on AirBnB (don’t tell me you didn’t see that coming), but official 2019 data from Barcelona put US hotel guests at an enormous 1,145,850, ahead of British citizens and only behind French, albeit not by much (a neat 50,000 guests). That’s the nice thing about Spain: each guest is still laboriously registered by hand on a little green sheet of paper which is then sent to the local chamber of commerce to be processed for data.

        However one here should remember French numbers are “inflated” by school groups whose members haven’t got the spending power of American tourists, who are overwhelmingly young adults. Like them or not, US tourists spend truly a lot of money in Barcelona.

  12. MC01 says:

    This Summer will be a fight over scraps. By the looks of it Portugal and Spain have already lost the battle against Croatia, Greece and Italy.
    With Egypt, Morocco and Tunisia all re-opening to international tourism next month, the battle for scraps will become even more ferocious.
    And let’s not forget Bulgaria: the (in)famous resort city of Sunny Beach re-opened on June 1 already, when most of their customers couldn’t even travel abroad and many were still under lock at home.

    The Regional government of Sicily has started paying direct cash incentives to hotels and resorts to allow them to undercut the competition and to be competitive with dirt cheap rates in Bulgaria and Egypt. The Greek government has considerably cut airport fees to entice low cost carriers to make their islands cheaper than other destinations. And the Bulgarians are literally offering free booze to hotel guests in Sunny Beach (like they really needed it) in a complicated scheme which involves subsidizing local breweries and distilleries.
    It won’t be long before Spain joins in, at least until they realize the size of the gaping hole in their budget.

    In another snippet of news, the Maldives re-opened to international tourism yesterday. With tourism accounting for 66.4% of GDP in 2019 it will be interesting to see what incentives the country will offer: right now the only way to get to Malé (and from there to a resort) is through Doha courtesy of Qatar Airways. Etihad and Emirates will resume flights from their UAE hubs this weekend already. Asian carriers will resume in August but it’s likely European companies will only be back in September, if not later.
    As I started suspecting in early April Emirates and Qatar Airways are fast emerging as the true winners in this terrible crisis.

    • char says:

      I doubt that the EU wants its citizen to spend their Euro’s on Maldivian tourism. Greek is much better so don’t expect a push to open those countries.
      Flights are also so underbooked that it may be better to wait than it is to fly.
      The world will look radically different in 2025 but i can’t predict what will change and i don’t think anybody can. Is there even a vaccine or has the world de-coupled in local blocks without much travel between them

      • Argus says:

        The chances of a vaccine in 12 – 18 months are quite good. A reputable research team in Quebec is starting human clinical trials on a plant-based vaccine (which mimics Covid and leads to an appropriate immune response). They are testing healthy subjects under 55 years. If it goes well, they will test it on older people and then on those with comorbidity. Dosage etc would have to be tailored to the demographic.

        Of course, no one lab will be able to meet the demand. There are about 150 labs worldwide working on a vaccine so there will likely eventually be several available.

        • MC01 says:

          Most of the vaccines will be manufactured by specialized pharma concerns from India such as Bharat Biotech and the Serum Institute of India, regardless of who will hold the patent to it: these Indian producers are the only ones with the facilities and capacity to manufacture millions of doses per week. They do it every year with flu shots.

          In fact at the present they are manufacturing 40 million doses of a locally developed vaccine which the Indian government intends to make available to the public on August 15 already after an extremely accelerated testing program. This is smart gambling: if the vaccine doesn’t work (very likely) the government has only lost a bit of money and Indian producers will get business down the road anyway. If the vaccine works, India scores a major political victory worldwide, no matter what the OMS/WHO says.

    • MiTurn says:

      MC01, you’re always on your game! I always look forward to your posts.

  13. char says:

    I seriously doubt that spending on tourism is so much different between the Us and EU. I think it is more due to different definition. A difference between 11% and 2.6% sounds to me fishy

  14. Implicit says:

    “Big companies, like Globalia — which owns airline Air Europa, travel agency Halcones Viajes, and hotel chain Be Live, all of which have been closed or operating well below capacity for four months — have the ear of ministers, presidents, and central bankers. ”
    It is too bad that the small companies all over the world are not able to receive some of the money that the big players are getting.
    Dog forbid you only have an employee or three like the majority of small businesses.
    The governments all over the world made a big show of helping small businesses, but they never did help the vast majority of them. it was all a lot of talk. Trickle down, my arse; they got nothing.

  15. Ole says:

    Not only travel restrictions. But the insanity that local regional politicians do, also keeps people away.
    Who would go to a trip, and will be forced to wear a mask in the summer time or pay 100 euros fine for the right to breath a fresh air. Or be on constant lookout for sudden closeouts of places or regions, or limits imposed overnight in other areas. When there are other alternatives to Spain not doing anything like this. Unless this stops, wealthy tourists will not be back.

    • MC01 says:

      I plan to go in Spain in early October. By then cooler heads will have prevailed, because the alternative is between running around with their hair on fire and starving. That’s as simple as that: even Italian politicians seem to be finally getting that uncertainty is even deadlier than the virus.

      In the meantime send your wealthy tourists our way: we dropped most restrictions on Wednesday, including facemasks (only need to wear them in closed public spaces), and we are eagerly looking forward to pocketing your mone… I mean welcoming new and stimulating people.
      Just be wary this is a very rainy year so remember to pack an umbrella or raincoat.

  16. Coachy1 says:

    So “delicious is the irony” of people subletting their places and losing money? Is that as ironic as all the 2/3 jobs you lost in your last post?
    Or just because other Airbnb Hosts converted their units to short term, so if they stayed long term and the renter was a restaurant employee and didn’t pay would that be “delicious”? As well?

    Please explain what business is acceptable and what is “delicious ” when they go out of business for coronavirus. Rentacars, airline restaurants or vacation rentals. Please.

    • Wolf Richter says:

      Coachy1,

      Take the local renters’ point-of-view, and it will open your eyes.

      Nick’s income doesn’t depend on tourism, not one bit. Totally unrelated. He lost his income due to the uncertainty among his business clients, none of whom are involved in tourism either. So I have no idea why you drag his income from his clients into this.

      The Airbnb effect has raised rents for locals in many touristy cities as it has removed apartments from the rental market. And these locals are now paying more just to live there, and often can no longer afford to live there, just so that some Airbnb hosts can make money off tourists. And the locals are complaining. So when there is a turn of events that might halt this progression, it could certainly be considered a “delicious irony.”

  17. Rubicon says:

    “……..since the EU “reopened” its borders two weeks ago, the list of nationalities allowed into the Schengen space has plunged to 15, from 105 before the pandemic. Among the nations left off the list are the United States, China, Russia, the Gulf States and most countries in Latin America — which together account for the vast majority of profligate visitors that keep (or kept) the luxury stores of Barcelona, Madrid and Marbella in business.”

    I DO NOT think that statement is correct. My European friends tell me the EU is absolutely allowing Chinese Tourists in because they come loaded with plenty money. As a result, the EU caters to them. This is unlike the small cadre of wealthy Americans. They can’t EVEN match up with the hoards of Chinese tourists who visit there every year.

Comments are closed.