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Undaunted by Omicron, tourists seek sun in a welcoming Spain

TAHICHE, Spain - Coronavirus infections were soaring in Spain, causing cases not previously seen in the pandemic. Beds in intensive care units were being filled up in the hospitals.

But that did not stop Tatjana Baldynjuk and Timur Neverkevits, a couple from Estonia, from buying airline tickets so they could visit the island of Lanzarote, a sunny promontory dominated by volcanoes on the eastern edge of Spain's Canary Islands.

"It was 100 percent easier to get here than many other countries," said Baldynjuk, who works in freight logistics in Estonia.

More than half of Europe's population could be infected with the Omicron variant of coronavirus in early March, according to the World Health Organization, and fears of its wild spread have led governments to different reactions. The Netherlands turned to a lockdown, which has only now begun to ease a little. Italy went so far as to ban unvaccinated people from bars and public transport.

And while Spain has also tightened some of its own rules in recent weeks, its message to tourists has largely remained the same as before the rise in cases: please come.

Western European countries now have some of the highest infection rates in the world. In Spain, new cases rose from an average of less than 2,000 a day in early November to more than 130,000 daily in the past week.

But unlike some of its neighbors, Spain does not require a negative test to enter the country. Entering a restaurant is still as simple as ever in some parts of the country. In Madrid, unlike in Paris and Rome, one does not have to show proof of a vaccine, and the same is true in many other regions.

Like other countries, Spain tries to balance how much economic pain it can tolerate when it tries to keep its people safe. But here the memories of the recent economic ruin are especially raw.

The Spanish economy fell more than 11 percent in 2020 - the worst drop since the Civil War in the 1930s. And that happened a little over a decade after the economic crisis in 2008. The crash devastated a broad portion of the economy in the years that followed, leading to widespread unemployment and homelessness, with some of the hungry left to forage in bins for food.

Spanish politicians are aware of what is at stake to keep the flow of visitors to the country, according to Manuel Hidalgo, an economics professor at Pablo de Olavide University in Seville.

"The tourism sector has an increased importance now," he said.

Before the pandemic, the tourism business accounted for about 12.4 percent of the country's economic production - and Spain is eager to get the numbers up again, especially in the winter months, when northern Europeans head south to escape the cold. More than 2.23 million people are employed in Spanish tourism, nearly 11.8 percent of the country's workforce, a much higher figure than in neighbors like France, with 7.3 percent, or Germany, 8.4 percent.

But keeping the door open for visitors is associated with risks that are well remembered in Spain. By 2020, eager to open up to tourism and return to normal, Spain eased its restrictions before the summer, helping to trigger a deadly second wave of coronavirus.

The number of international tourists dropped from about 84 million in 2019 to about 19 million in 2020, a drop of more than 77 percent.

The Spanish government has said it has little interest in returning to the restrictions it imposed during the first wave of 2020, saying the country, with its successful vaccination campaign, has already taken the greatest measures it can to limit the impact. of the virus.

Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez recently went a step further, saying the country should accept that the virus had become a fact. "We have to learn to live with what we do with many other viruses," he said.

The island of Lanzarote, located 80 miles off the northwest coast of Africa, offers a window into tourism where coronavirus is accepted as endemic and the circulation of foreign visitors continues much as it did before the pandemic.

Its sky is dotted with planes filled with tourists arriving by direct flights from Manchester, Amsterdam and Düsseldorf. The warm weather means that much of the island can be enjoyed outdoors without a mask. Northern Europeans flock to vineyards built along the black sides of volcanoes and adorned with signs in German and English.

"This must be the way forward, Spain must accept that the virus does not go away and that we have to continue doing business," said Juan Antonio Torres Díaz, who took over as owner of Palacio Ico, a restaurant six months ago. and a hotel in the north of the island, which is betting that tourism will recover.

In other parts of the country, some say they are starting to see signs that foreign tourists are also learning to live with the virus.

Cristóbal Ruiz Mejías, a longtime waiter at Chinitas, an iconic cafe in the mainland beach town of Málaga, said he not only sees tourists returning from France and Britain, but now from countries further afield like Argentina. He is also adapting to the changes in his work - such as asking for vaccine certificates before customers can get a place, something that is required in the Andalusia region, where Málaga is located.

"It still bothers me to have to ask for them," he said, adding that he is concerned about the fear that the virus could drive away tourists and harm Málaga's fragile recovery.

For Encarna Pérez Donaire, the owner of a small business that owns holiday homes in Hornos de Segura, a village in southern Spain, the current approach is a welcome contrast to this time last year, when shops and businesses without available vaccines the region had to not be open.

Now about three-quarters of her rooms are occupied, she said. Her company has drawn up protocols that tourists seem to be comfortable with, leaving rooms to air out one day between guests and leaving the keys in boxes to avoid contact with the property managers.

Ms. Pérez Donaire said the challenges now have less to do with government restrictions than with concerns about the new variant. "People want out, but with Omicron as contagious as it is, there were more cancellations," she said.

And the policy of open doors in Spain has not been without risks, a fact that tourists like Marian López, a Spanish online marketer, realized during a trip with her partner to the island of Lanzarote.

Before arriving on January 7, the couple celebrated a dinner with the family for Three Kings Day, a traditional holiday in Spain. They spent the first weekend visiting some of the island's beaches, and then they learned that one of the relatives for their holiday dinner had Covid-19. Then they also began to feel symptoms, including pain in the body and fever, and tests showed that they had become infected, forcing them to isolate themselves.

After their hotel reservation ran out, they had to struggle to find an apartment to stay in to wait the rest of the mandatory isolation period of one week - all the while getting sicker.

Ms López, who also runs a travel blog called Travelanding, said she and her partner had joked before the trip that it might not be so bad if they were forced to work from the island if they got sick. Now they feel different.

"When you'm sick," she said, "it's best to be home."

Nicholas Casey reported from Tahiche, Spain. Joseph Baptist reported from Madrid.

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