Europe scrambles to salvage summer tourist season as lockdowns ease
Athens - There are no tourists at Vila Gale's resorts right now, and the home page of the company's website urges visitors to #STAYHOME.
Still, Portugal's second-largest hotel chain is busy: staff are stocking up on sanitisers, gloves, masks and thermometers, re-arranging dining tables to keep guests at least 1.5 metres apart, and drawing up a la carte menus to replace buffets.
It plans to reopen its hotels from June, joining a scramble by Europe's tourism industry to salvage what business it can from this summer season as coronavirus lockdowns begin to ease.
"We have to endure the situation and get some revenue this summer," said Vila Gale executive board member Goncalo Rebelo de Almeida. "I hope ... that will at least allow us to pay fixed costs. And then we will bet on it returning to normal in 2021."
Across the continent, from Portugal's Algarve to the islands of Greece, beaches are deserted. There are no visitors at the Eiffel Tower or the Louvre, Edinburgh's August festivals have been cancelled and the Netherlands' flower fields are closed.
The Covid-19 pandemic, which has killed nearly 180 000 people and infected more than 2.5 million globally, has thrown the travel and tourism industry into turmoil.
International travel is expected to drop 39 percent this year, according to consultancy Tourism Economics - equivalent to 577 million fewer journeys.
That is catastrophic for an industry that accounts for more than 10 percent of global gross domestic product (GDP) and employs some 320 million people.
The European Union's Internal Market Commissioner, Thierry Breton, wants a "Marshall Plan" using funds from Europe's vast economic stimulus packages to haul hotels, restaurants, tour operators, travel agencies and cruise companies back from collapse.
The EU's executive will come up with guidelines on how to restart travel, but getting member states in lockstep may not be easy.
Austria has suggested a staggered resumption of tourism, initially allowing German visitors in, rather than a full restart of the EU's suspended open-border pact.
Greek Tourism Minister Harry Theocharis says it is critical that Europe adopts a common position and reopens borders soon because already businesses have folded.
"Many hotel units won't open, and there will be unemployment," Theocharis told Reuters, calling for long-term financial aid to an industry that represents about a quarter of Greece's economy.
There are doubts that Mediterranean destinations can persuade northern Europeans worried about their finances and catching the virus to come south this summer. Spain and Italy in particular are infection hotspots.
The British government is advising against all but essential travel anywhere, and Britons are cancelling summer holidays.
"With that advice in place... new bookings, especially for early summer, would have virtually dried up," said a spokesman for the Association of British Travel Agents. There was more interest in holidays from late this year, he said.
A survey of 1 300 users from Germany by booking portal HolidayCheck showed that 40 percent are sticking to travel plans for this year and 30 percent want to spend their next holiday in Germany. Most just want clarity on cancellation terms.
"What holidaymakers need now is fast, correct and easily understandable information," said its director of customer service Pascal Due.
Most airlines have warned of a slow return to normal as passengers hesitate over booking holidays until their safety can be demonstrated by health authorities, though Europe's largest low-cost carrier, Ryanair, predicts a relatively quick bounce-back fuelled by a price war.
Portugal is working hard on its image as a safe place to visit, preparing health safety certifications for hotels, which will be required to offer protective equipment and even coronavirus tests for employees and customers.
Economy Minister Pedro Siza Vieira recalled the emotional tribute paid by British Prime Minister Boris Johnson to Portuguese nurse Luis Pitarma who cared for him while in hospital with coronavirus.
"Luís is not an isolated case," Siza Vieira told Reuters. "Our nurses are among the best prepared in Europe."
Home rental firm Airbnb also wants to reassure, suggesting hosts share their "enhanced cleaning regime" with potential guests and let them know person-to-person contact will be minimal.
But many say much of the summer season is already lost.
"We have definitely lost three months, now we are hoping to recoup the other four, July to October," said Hotelier Manolis Giannoulis on the Greek island of Crete.
On France's Mont Saint-Michel, a tidal islet topped by an ancient abbey off France's northwest coast, the owners of deserted souvenir shops and restaurants are also planning ahead.
"We are thinking about our waiting staff wearing masks, single-dish menus, high-quality disposable cutlery to reduce sanitary problems for our washing-up staff," said Eric Bellon, head of the La Mere Poulard restaurant group.
"Our objective is to be ready and waiting, whether it’s in three weeks, a month or two months."Reuters