The tourism industry in the face of COVID-19: an unprecedented impact

COVID-19 is having a huge impact on economic activity in Spain and, in particular, on the tourism industry. At CaixaBank Research we expect GDP to fall by between 13% and 15% in 2020, not returning to its pre-crisis levels until 2023. The outlook in 2020 is even grimmer for Spain's tourism industry as it is one of the sectors hardest hit by the pandemic.

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After Spain declared a state of emergency on 14 March, the population's mobility was reduced to a minimum; borders were closed and people had to be confined to their homes to check the spread of the coronavirus. As a result, a sector as dependent on mobility as the tourism industry entered a period of almost total inactivity. Only since the lockdown measures have begun to be lifted has the outlook for the sector started to improve. The indicators of card expenditure via CaixaBank's payment terminals suggest that tourist spending has started to wake up from its hibernation and is embarking on an incipient recovery. Consequently, if the health situation is kept under control, a considerable improvement in activity is expected for the second half of 2020, although this will not prevent demand for the year as a whole falling very sharply. According to CaixaBank Research forecasts, by 2020 tourist expenditure by foreigners will fall by around 50% while domestic tourists will spend almost 30% less.

The tourism business is faced with a very complex situation. There was a total clousure of tourist accommodation during the toughest months of the lockdown, so the spring season was completely lost. This has pushed the sector to resort massively to lines of credit backed by the ICO and also furlough measures (ERTE in Spanish) to ensure that companies can survive without revenue over a period that has lasted more than two months. Given this situation, the tourism industry saw higher job losses than any other sector during the first half of the year. Up to June about 44% of the reduction in workers affiliated to Social Security was due to job losses in tourism companies. Nevertheless, activity indicators point to a gradual recovery in tourism business. According to the card payments made via CaixaBank terminals, whereas 75% of hotels and tourist agencies were still closed in May, during the second week of July this figure fell to 31%. If this improvement in demand prospects persists over the coming months, the sector's recovery will continue and some of the jobs lost should be recovered.

Accordingly, we estimate that tourism-related GDP could decline by nearly 45% in 2020 as a whole, representing a loss of around 5% of total GDP. This impact will be felt particularly by the autonomous regions in the Mediterranean and on the islands, which are heavily dependent on the influx of international tourists and whose tourism sectors account for a larger share of the regions' business.

Although the outlook for 2020 is overwhelmingly negative, the medium term could bring cause for more optimism. Up to February 2020, the tourism industry had enjoyed almost a decade of extraordinary results, during which time it took on the investments required to boost its competitiveness. Post-coronavirus tourism will have to adapt its supply to the new situation and be able to meet demands for higher quality and more personalised services, improvements which the sector's entrepreneurs have already been focusing on for several years. For all these reasons, and although COVID-19 has made the future more uncertain than ever, the tourism industry is capable of recovering strongly in the medium term, which would make it a key driver of growth for the Spanish economy.