Europe mulls how to get tourists back

Menelaos Hadjicostis & Barry Hatton

AYIA NAPA, CYPRUS (AP) — The Mediterranean resort town of Ayia Napa is known for its nightlife. Each summer, thousands of young foreign tourists pack nightlife district after a day at the beach.

But the pandemic silenced the exuberant Napa Strip district as the island nation of Cyprus went into a lockdown to halt the spread of the coronavirus. Now establishment owners wonder when social distancing rules will be eased enough for business to resume.

“We know young people will come to dance and have a good time. But then you have to tell them that they have to keep two metres apart from each other?” asked the spokesman for a group representing local establishments and restaurants Charalambos Alexandrou.

Across southern Europe, in places where tourism drives much of the economy, officials are weighing how to entice travellers to come back, even while the pandemic remains a threat. Juggling the sometimes-competing needs of health and business, authorities are introducing measures to reassure visitors that taking a holiday is safe again.

Social distancing rules may work in restaurants, but that’s not likely to solve the quandary facing Ayia Napa’s entertainment venues. Alexandrou said this will be “a season of trying to survive” not seeking a profit.

A swimming pool lays empty at a closed hotel at the popular Cyprus seaside resort of Ayia Napa, a favourite among tourists from Europe and beyond. PHOTOS: AP
A swimmer bathes in the sea off an empty stretch of Adams beach in Ayia Napa, Cyprus, a seaside resort popular with tourists
A street with closed restaurants normally swarming with vacationers as the tourism season kicks-off, stands empty in popular Cyprus seaside resort village of Ayia Napa

One idea being considered is asking holidaymakers to take a COVID-19 test prior to their arrival. Cyprus has officially reported 916 cases of COVID-19 and 17 deaths.

The country’s Deputy Minister for Tourism Savvas Perdios said Cyprus will initially look to bring tourists from nearby countries that have managed to contain the virus — Greece, Israel, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and some central European and Nordic nations.

Authorities will take more time to assess the course of the pandemic in the United Kingdom (UK) and Russia, the island’s primary tourism markets, before rolling out the red carpet for those countries.

Tourists in the near future will have to navigate a different set of expectations, routines and rules to counter the virus.

President of the Cyprus Hotel Managers’ Association Christos Angelides said new rules being announced soon will mean that from the moment tourists step out of their bus or taxi from the airport, their luggage will be disinfected and taken straight to their rooms. Reception procedures will be done electronically, with employees behind a plexiglass screen and cleaning staff in full protective gear.

Guests eyeing a vacation in Portugal, another major southern European holiday destination, will probably look beyond a hotel’s online reviews to see if it has the “Clean&Safe” seal now being awarded by local tourism officials. The seal indicates that the establishment, be it a hotel, restaurant or other venue, has enacted recommended hygiene and safety procedures to protect against the virus.

The idea has been a big success in a desperate sector that accounts for 15 per cent of Portugal’s gross domestic product and nine per cent of the country’s jobs. The online classes needed to obtain the seal are being attended by around 4,000 people a week.

“It’s a question of making people feel safe to travel and having confidence in the place where they’re going,” said president of the government agency Turismo de Portugal, Luís Araújo.

Portugal lies at the opposite end of the Mediterranean Sea from Cyprus, but its challenge is the same: how to reconcile social distancing and hygiene rules with fun and relaxation.

“Restrictions scare away any tourist,” Araújo acknowledged.

The Portuguese government said entertainment venues will be the last places to open, but many hotels intend to start reopening June 1.

Among the changes being adopted: Guests will not check into their rooms until 24 hours after the last occupant has checked out, to allow time for thorough cleaning and airing of the space. Waiting for sunbeds may come to an end as some hotel guests will get one for their own exclusive use. Buffets are unlikely to be offered, but room service is expected to thrive.

Another challenge is how to reopen southern Europe’s famous beaches.

Portugal came up with a plan to get people back on the sand starting on June 6. Sunbathers must stay 1.5 metres apart, with umbrellas at least three metres apart. New signs and an app will use a traffic-light system of red, yellow and green indicating which beaches are full, partly full or have few people. Paddle boats and water slides will be prohibited.

In an attempt to shore up public confidence, Portuguese Prime Minister Antonio Costa went to his local cafe for morning coffee and had lunch at a Lisbon restaurant with the Speaker of Parliament on Monday, the first day those businesses reopened after a lockdown.

Even with all the efforts to make tourists feel safe, worries about the coronavirus are not going away.

UK personal trainer Kenny Dyer cancelled an Easter vacation in Cyprus and is hopeful of venturing back in October. But Dyer attached a condition that governments may find hard to guarantee.

“I wouldn’t want to fly somewhere where there’s a sudden spike in coronavirus cases, and I would have to be quarantined abroad,” Dyer said.