When There’s One Covid Rule Book for Locals, and Another for Tourists


MADRID — Óscar Robles Álvarez yearned to celebrate Easter this year with his family in his hometown in northeastern Spain, which he has not visited since Christmas 2019.

Instead, he will spend the holiday on Sunday in Madrid, where he now lives, because of domestic travel restrictions imposed to stem another wave of Covid-19. He says he understands why the government recently extended those rules, but cannot fathom why no such travel ban applies to foreign tourists visiting his hometown, Getxo, a beach resort popular with surfers 80 miles from the border with France.

“This situation is completely unfair,” said Mr. Robles Álvarez, 50, who worked in finance but is currently jobless. “Citizens are being asked to behave responsibly by politicians who themselves decide completely incoherent Covid rules.”

In the prelude to Easter, a debate in Spain about whether double standards are being applied to contain Covid-19 has been intensifying. The polemic is echoed in other European countries, where the authorities have also restricted internal travel while allowing their citizens to go abroad and permitting foreign tourists to enter and move about more freely.

The back-and-forth over the rules reflects the difficult balancing acts for European governments trying to blunt the pandemic while keeping their economies afloat, particularly when it comes to the tourism revenues that are so critical to countries like Italy and Spain. After seven years of consecutive growth in tourism arrivals, Spain welcomed 19 million people last year, down from almost 84 million in 2019.

The Spanish government has defended its approach, stressing that visitors from most other countries do not present the same health risks as residents on the move because they must test negative for Covid-19 before traveling. But local residents do not have the option to move around the country, even if they have tested negative, for leisure.

The European Commission, the executive arm of the European Union, introduced plans recently to create a digital certificate that could ease tourism this summer, including internal travel within member states.

“Given that transmission and risk are similar for national and cross-border journeys, member states should ensure there is coherence between the measures applied to the two types of journey,” said Christian Wigand, a commission spokesman.

Opposition politicians in Spain seized on those comments. Some were already accusing the authorities of favoring tourists over residents seeking an Easter getaway.

María Jesús Montero, a minister and spokeswoman for the Spanish government, said last week that the country was doing exactly the same as others in allowing foreign travel but limiting domestic movement.

On Tuesday, the Spanish government ordered the mandatory wearing of face masks in all public outdoor spaces, including beaches. Some regional leaders immediately criticized the rule, arguing that they should have first been consulted by the central government.

Italy also has tough rules in place restricting movement across the country. Residents are allowed to leave their town — or their house in the more affected regions — only for work, health reasons or other reasons deemed necessities.

But the government has allowed Italians to travel for tourism to most European countries, including France, Germany and Spain, only asking them to get a negative test 48 hours before their return.

A spokesman for Italy’s health minister said the risk of contagion from international travel with restrictions was lower than that of allowing free movement between domestic regions. One reason for that, he said, is volume — it is easier and cheaper for large numbers of people to travel domestically — adding that it would also be virtually impossible to enforce quarantines on travel between regions.

The Italian hotel association, Federalberghi, was among those accusing the government of double standards.

“Hotels and all the Italian hospitality system have been stuck for months because of the ban on moving from one region to another,” Bernabò Bocca, the president of Federalberghi, said on Sunday. “We do not understand how it is possible to authorize travel across the border and ban it within Italy,” he added.

On Tuesday, amid reports of a boom in Easter travel bookings by Italians to places like the Canary Islands of Spain, Italy changed in its rules on international travel. People flying to Italy from another European country will now have to stay in quarantine for five days and then show another negative swab test.

While the principle of the freedom of movement between member states is a cornerstone of the European Union, the bloc has struggled not only to keep internal borders open since last spring but also to harmonize its travel restrictions. Instead, individual member states have repeatedly changed their travel rules while also enforcing different methods to test or quarantine travelers.

The inconsistent travel restrictions have also baffled some prominent health experts. Fernando Simón, director of Spain’s national health emergency center, told a news conference in March that the country’s travel rules were incongruous and hard to explain.

Not helping matters, the European Union has also struggled with its vaccine rollout; Spain and Italy have both inoculated only about 11 percent of their populations. In comparison, Britain has given shots to 46 percent and the United States 29 percent, according to data from The New York Times.

Spain is not alone in struggling to sell citizens on travel and holiday rules. In Germany, Chancellor Angela Merkel apologized last week after she dropped an unpopular plan to extend a shutdown over the Easter vacation.

Her U-turn came shortly after Germany lifted a quarantine for people returning from some parts of Europe where the Covid-19 caseload has fallen, including the Balearic archipelago, a major Spanish tourism destination which includes the islands of Majorca and Ibiza.

After the decision, airlines added hundreds of Easter holiday flights between Germany and Spain.

Laura Malone, the communications manager for Riu, a Spanish hotel operator with headquarters on Majorca, said there had been “an exponential rise in our bookings.” She said that the company had reopened two hotels on Majorca and that 90 percent of the reservations were coming from Germans.

The response to the pandemic has also become more fragmented in Spain because regional administrations rather than the central government have been setting most of the lockdown rules since the summer.

Before a local election in May, Isabel Díaz Ayuso, leader of the Madrid region and member of the center-right Popular Party, has taken to social media to criticize the economic restrictions of the Socialist-led national government. She has encouraged foreigners to visit the capital and portrayed the city’s bars and stores as bastions of freedom in comparison with other regions’ tougher restrictions.

This past weekend, the newspaper El País published on its front page a photograph of partying after the 11 p.m. curfew in the streets of central Madrid, and the images spread quickly on social media.

The politicians governing Madrid say that the police are clamping down on disorderly behavior and that tourists are mostly in town to visit the capital’s museums and opera house, particularly because cultural offerings are more restricted in their own cities.

Teresa Buquerín, who runs a hotel in the medieval town of Ayllón, expressed mixed feelings about only having 25 percent of her rooms booked so far for Easter when she would normally have domestic tourists from the capital to fill her establishment. Ayllón is about 85 miles north of Madrid, but it is on the other side of a regional border that residents of the capital cannot cross under the pandemic restrictions now in place.

Madrid is “our economic engine,” Ms. Buquerín said, adding. “I would certainly always welcome people from Madrid, but only as long as they have been respecting the same safety rules as us, which is not what seems to have been happening.”

After keeping her hotel shut for four months until mid-March, she added, “It would be disastrous if I had to close again the week after Easter because of a new Covid problem.”

Emma Bubola contributed reporting from Rome.



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