This Spanish resort perfected covid-friendly holidays. Then Britain pulled the plug

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Off the coast of Majorca, just a short walk from the Cala Mondragó beach, lies the Club Cala Barca – a sprawling 734-room four star island resort. Owned by Iberostar, it welcomes thousands of UK guests every year. But in the midst of a global pandemic, the family-friendly resort, which bills itself as being “the size of over ten football pitches”, feels very different.
While the kids’ clubs are still running, all staff and children over the age of six have to wear masks. The buffet is still being laid out every morning, but all the food is behind a glass screen, and guests are served their continental breakfasts through plate-sized holes. It’s a different kind of holiday for Kayleigh from Milton Keynes, who arrived on Friday along with her partner and five children for their summer vacation.


With masks required in all indoor public areas except for the resort’s eight pools, and hand sanitiser dotted around the whole resort, Club Cala Barca has left Kayleigh and her family feeling extremely safe. “They’re really well-prepared,” she says, as she walks down the beach with her kids. But just one day into the family’s vacation, travel plans for holidaymakers like Kayleigh were thrown into chaos.
On Saturday, the Department for Transport abruptly removed Spain, along with the Balearic Islands and the Canary Islands, from its list of safe places to travel, despite the recent coronavirus outbreaks being confined mainly to Catalonia and Aragon in the mainland. The resort where Kayleigh and her family were staying, which was among the first tranche of Iberostar hotels to reopen in June, went from being busy over the weekend to becoming eerily quiet by Monday.
It isn’t the first holiday in which coronavirus travel restrictions have confused plans for Kayleigh. She was due to go to Bulgaria this summer with her family instead of Spain, but tour operator Jet2 cancelled the package holiday as the 14-day mandatory quarantine to and from Bulgaria remained in place.
Blocking the air corridor between Spain and the UK means that everyone arriving from the country must self-isolate for 14 days, wrecking holidays for thousands of Brits currently in Spain or due to fly off this summer. “It has put a dampener on it,” says Kayleigh, who is determined not to let the news ruin her holiday. “It’s more annoying and frustrating. The fact that they’ve included the Islands is ridiculous.”


The guidance has left an estimated 1.8 million Brits who are currently in Spain or had holidays booked scrambling to figure out what to do next. According to figures from aviation data analyst firm Cirium, 9,835 flights had been booked between July 25 and the end of August. Those flights might leave the UK empty.
Spanish billionaire Miguel Fluxà Rosselló built Club Cala Barca in 1989 as one of the first footholds in a hospitality empire that spans cruise ships, an airline and Caribbean resorts. Popular with British tourists and families, it built clientele off of reasonable prices and good service to become one of 17 hotels in Majorca under the Iberostar umbrella. It offers guests tennis classes, diving classes, ice cream stands, and its own beach. According to some of the most recent guest reviews, people are less enthusiastic about the food than they are about the Covid-19 safety measures.
At the moment, the hotel is at 70 per cent capacity, according to a customer service representative for the hotel. Iberostar did not respond to a request for comment for this story at the time of writing. But Kayleigh says that while people still seem to be checking in since the announcement, the hallways, swimming pools and eateries seem to be far quieter.
The travel conditions have left Spain, whose tourism sector was already burnt by the coronavirus crisis, reeling. Spanish tourism association Exceltur had already predicted back in June that the sector will lose €83 billion across the whole of 2020; and over a half of that total between the months of March and June. Tourism accounts for 12 per cent of the country’s economy. Last year, a fifth of tourists to the country were British, making up the largest group by nationality.


According to Spain’s National Statistics Institute (INE) not a single international tourist visited Spain in April. By comparison, seven million international tourists visited Spain in April 2019, collectively spending more than €7bn. When coronavirus hit, half of all workers on Spain’s temporary layoff schemes came from the tourism sector, and when lockdown ended, hotel chains found themselves in the middle of their busiest season, starting from scratch.
The Iberostar hotel group said in June that it only expected 25 per cent of its 100 hotels to reopen. Top tourism executives admitted to El País that they expected that just over half the hotels in Spain would reopen, at around 25 per cent capacity, rather than 80-90 per cent — a disastrous outcome for the sector. And this was before Britain blocked Spain.
The confederation of hotels in Spain (CEHAT) warned that the UK’s decision to impose a quarantine on people visiting the country could mean that other countries follow suit “without taking into account the real situation in Spain, and especially in the tourist areas around the coast and Balearic and Canary islands”. A mass exodus could be on the horizon for hotels that have already been battered by the coronavirus crisis.
“We have to ask that the decisions taken are based on objective criteria based on a changing hygiene security, and demand that responsibility is taken for imprudent measures that could gravely damage the tourism, and especially hotelier, who are complying with the most stringent protocols in Europe,” says Jorge Marichal, president of CEHAT.
Unfortunately these objections have done little to stop major operators from pulling the plug on Spanish holidays. Over the weekend, tour operators Tui and Jet2 cancelled all flights to Spain, the Balearic Islands and the Canary Islands in the wake of the 14-day mandatory quarantine.
“It is absolutely essential that if you have a package holiday that you wait for the tour operator to cancel, that you don’t cancel yourself. If you cancel, you will probably forfeit your right to a refund,” says Rory Boland, travel editor of consumer rights group Which?. But those who booked flights and accommodation separately might find themselves in a trickier position. “Almost all of the major airlines have said that they will continue flights to Spain and to the Islands. If the flights operate, you will not be able to get a refund.”
For people like Kayleigh who are already in Spain, options are more limited. “If you’re currently in Spain, there’s nothing to do but enjoy your holidays as much as you can, and the government has been clear that you don’t need to return early,” adds Boland. But it’s not so easy to switch off concerns about what to do once she and the family get home. “What if I need to go food shopping? Nobody can go for me. If someone catches me out food shopping and someone phones someone and says ‘Oh I know she was in Spain and now she’s out in Morrison’s’, I’ll get stuck with a £1,000 fine,” Kayleigh says.
Lincolnshire-based NHS worker Rachel and her friend were walking down the Sunset Strip in Ibiza when they read the news about the air corridor from Spain being blocked. Her holiday “was a bit tarnished really”, she says, having arrived in the country for a holiday just two days earlier, booked before the pandemic. “We called up our parents and I ended up crying on the phone to my dad because it was so stressful and unclear. I had Covid in May and had to isolate in my room for a week and that was bad enough.”
Rachel is now back in Lincolnshire and is self-isolating in her room on guidance from her employer and says that if she knew she had to quarantine on her return, she would have seriously considered not going. “If it is what it is now, like having to stay in our rooms, then no, we wouldn’t have [gone]”. For those who are self-isolating and don’t have Covid-19 symptoms, they aren’t eligible for statutory sick pay.
The government revised guidelines for people returning from Spain, saying that they can reduce the time that they spend self-isolating from 14 to ten days if they test negative for coronavirus. But this and enhanced hygiene measures may not be enough to entice people who had already booked a trip to Spain to go through with it.
If it wasn’t for the socially distant tables during the evening entertainment or the mandatory wearing of face masks and hand sanitiser whenever guests come into the hotel, Club Cala Barca, which is still the largest Iberostar hotel in Majorca, would feel the same. But as tour operators continue cancelling flights to the country, resorts like Cala Barca may see guests continue to leave, or never arrive at all.
When Kayleigh is asked if she would go back, knowing she would have to quarantine at home, she says quickly – “No, definitely not. I would have postponed to next summer, purely because I wouldn’t want to quarantine.”
Alex Lee is a writer for WIRED. He tweets from @1AlexL
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