Days after the FCO lifted its advice against all but essential travel to Spain, Madeleine Barber flew to the Canary Islands with the UNWTO to investigate how the pandemic has reshaped travel there.
"Keep your distance!” an airport official barked as two passengers ahead jostle to hand over their passport and boarding pass at the gate.
This is a phrase newly plastered across the floor, walls and digital screens of Heathrow Terminal 5, given it’s just three days since the Foreign Office lifted its ban on all but essential travel for 67 destinations as the coronavirus pandemic begins to ease in Europe.
With Spain one of the countries exempt from restrictions, the UN World Tourism Organization (UNWTO) and Canary Islands tourist board teamed up to charter a flight from Madrid to Gran Canaria exclusively for European press and travel trade professionals. Its aim was to kick-start tourism in the popular holiday destination and trial a new health passport app designed to combat the spread of Covid-19.
Of course, travelling from the UK meant a connecting flight was required. I began my journey at Heathrow, where I found not only very visible (and audible) reminders about social distancing, but also more than 600 hand sanitiser dispensers in every area of the airport, from check-in to boarding.
Visitors will find a concentrated cluster at security, where antibacterial wipes are also available for wiping down trays before use. Protective masks are handed out here if required too, as new regulations state face coverings must be worn by all passengers aged 11-plus at all times in the terminal.
Heathrow is also trialling temperature screening, and aiming to implement even more effective virus prevention measures in future.
In the sky, modifications vary dramatically from airline to airline; flying with Iberia to Madrid I was handed nothing but my landing card, while on my charter flight from Madrid to Gran Canaria there was a full meal service. But one policy all airlines agree on is the wearing of masks throughout the flight.
“We cannot guarantee there will be no more coronavirus, but with all the protocols from plane to resort in the Canary Islands, the risk is very low,” said Zurab Pololikashvili, secretary general of the UNWTO at a press conference on the island. “We truly believe this is the moment to reopen."
It’s true that the Canary Islands are in a good place to welcome back tourists after a four-month hiatus, having suffered just 2,436 confirmed cases of Covid-19 and 162 deaths. Hotels across all eight islands are now gradually reopening their doors, promoting their heightened hygiene protocols.
Hotel Santa Catalina in Las Palmas de Gran Canaria sets a good example for pandemic practice, testing the temperature of all guests on arrival, encouraging face coverings and gloves throughout, and offering sanitiser on almost every corner.
“We have many more guests than we expected since reopening the hotel and are at 60% capacity, with some of those arrivals coming from the UK,” said Oscar Calle, commercial director at Hotel Santa Catalina.
“[These guests] are OK with our protocol – it’s very clear, very easy to understand and they feel protected, safe and happy,” he added.
Additional measures in Hotel Santa Catalina and other properties in the destination include the removal of printed information in rooms, TV remote controls provided in wipe-clean casings and freshly packaged toiletries (no reusables).
But while the Canary Islands are ready for the world, it seems the world is not quite ready for the Canary Islands. The biggest challenge the tourist board is facing now is connectivity, with the number of scheduled routes into the Canary Islands currently standing at 341 when it should be welcoming 770.
Yaiza Castilla, minister of tourism for the Canary Islands, explained: “We are more dependant on air connectivity than mainland Spain and have only just overcome the Thomas Cook crisis, so we need to get the message out that the Canary Islands is a safe destination.”
Pololikashvili estimates the number of international tourists the Canary Islands receives will fall by 80% in 2020, but added “the situation is changing every day”.
“We’re all interested to see what the numbers will be in the future, but they depend on security, how fast the borders reopen and connectivity,” he said.
Overall the outlook is positive here, with the Canary Islands’ recovery efforts setting a target of getting tourist numbers back to 60% of where they were last year by November and December – the islands’ high season.
This may sound ambitious, but the tourist board reports July air capacity is now just 30% below that of July 2019 – while a fortnight ago, confirmed capacity was only 8% of last year’s total for the month.
This suggests there are green shoots for the Canary Islands’ tourism industry; the range of virus-prevention measures that are in place, and are set to stay, stand the islands in good stead for a strong recovery.
The aircraft operating the charter flight from Madrid to Gran Canaria was certainly feeling positive. Brandished on the body of the plane: “Todo saldra bien.” In English: “Everything will be fine.”
What is it?
A free digital health passport app designed to combat the spread of Covid-19 and prevent future pandemics.
How does it work?
After collecting swab tests the traveller has undertaken before beginning their journey, the app generates a QR code allowing people to travel with proof they are virus-free. The code only maintains validity for a maximum of 72 hours, after which it will disappear from the app.
When will it be available?
The app will be available to download from iOS and Android devices within two weeks. While it has great potential to make a difference, there is no obligation to use the service.