Tourism collapse threatens second virus blow to Mediterranean

Brussels - Northern Europeans may not be able to decamp to the beaches of the Mediterranean this summer because of the coronavirus, but will their governments support the devastated tourism sector?

Beach holiday destinations like Italy, Greece, Spain and Portugal are already among the EU members facing a daunting struggle with debt -- and now their vital travel and leisure industries are on the line.

Together with five more southern allies -- France, Malta, Cyprus, Bulgaria and Romania -- on April 27 they urged the 27-member EU to help save this "strategic" economic resource.

The European Union is seeking to put together a trillion-euro economic stimulus package, to kickstart the economy as a whole when the coronavirus lockdowns come to an end.

But, already rebuffed once, when they asked to share debt with their northern neighbours, southern countries are now sounding the alarm about the lost summer season.

The European Commission has been tasked with agreeing the rules of the relaunch, and tourism ministers from member states on Monday held a video conference after which nine southern members released a statement.

"In our countries, tourism constitutes a strategic industry," they said.

"We would like the EU Recovery Plan to include strong support for tourism and to recognise the existence of certain territories with specificities that must be met."

The southern friends also urged "homogenous" travel rules, fearing that a piecemeal withdrawal of lockdown measures will distort the tourism market and isolate needy areas.

Brussels attempted in vain to coordinate the lockdown and keep the EU's internal borders open, but many national capitals imposed unilateral restrictions on unnecessary visits.

EU member states have now begun setting a variety of target dates and criteria for a return to normal, and some expect to urge or require their citizens to stay at home this year.

"Public health makes the law these days," said French minister Jean-Baptiste Lemoyne, in an AFP interview.


- Destination Europe -


"As soon as we get word on the opening of the borders, we'll let you know. It's important that areas that have not been affected are not exposed to the virus.

"We should promote Europe as a destination in and of itself, and avoid competition within the bloc," he said, while admitting domestic tourism will probably recover before trips abroad.

At Monday's meeting, Croatia's tourism minister Gari Cappelli and EU single market commissioner Thierry Breton suggested members work on a harmonised strategy on hygiene rules.

In Breton's office, a source said they were aiming to have advice ready by mid-May so hoteliers, restaurateurs, tour operators and transport firms were working with the same tool kit.

This reflects the concern expressed by German foreign minister Heiko Maas in Sunday's Bild newspaper, that a dangerous free-for-all race between rival resorts to re-open could revive the epidemic.

Experts trace many of the cases of coronavirus in northern Europe to the Austrian ski station of Ischgl, popular with winter partygoers, and do not want beach hotspots like Majorca to play the same role in summer.

By Céline Le Prioux

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