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Spain’s record tourism streak has come to an abrupt end. 83.5 million tourists will no longer be coming to the southern European country any time soon. In many ways, 2019 will be remembered as ‘the year before the corona crisis.’ When everything was still ‘normal.’

Or perhaps it was unavoidable and Mother Nature just seized the opportunity to bring this ever-growing mass tourism to a screeching halt by spreading COVID-19? After months of uncertainty, it’s become apparent that ‘the new normal’ will look completely different. Though how nobody knows yet. It’s time to start thinking about that. Bringing in more than 83.5 million tourists will no longer be a sacred goal for Spain. If half of that figure is reached next year, it would be a huge step in the right direction. And that direction will no longer include the endless filling of airplanes, hotels, apartments, boulevards, terraces, and beaches.

The coronavirus should ensure that there’ll be the obligatory measures in place where appropriate. Inventive alternatives will have to be offered for sol, playa y tapas. No matter how difficult and challenging that will be for Spain. That said, the country is not a frontrunner when it comes to innovation.

The new reality

Spaniards are resigned to the fact that in recent months they’ve seen a new reality gradually emerge. Nowhere in the world has the difference been so great as here. While the population was preparing for a new, dazzling spring, when, as per usual, one party after another would follow each other up. But in a time of year when the sun would play an ever more prominent role, disaster struck. Thousands of people died. Everybody stayed inside. Everything was cancelled.

From one day to the next, tourism was gone. It just didn’t exist anymore. At first, many thought it would all be over within a few weeks. Perhaps spring would be the moment to draw a line. Yet a lot can be fixed with a good old-fashioned summer. Until slowly but surely the realization came that crowded beaches, bulging campsites, and jostling crowds in inner cities will be out of the question for the foreseeable future. Slightly numbed by a sudden, subsequent and unexpected crisis, the Spaniards are caught in the ropes feeling a bit groggy.

The country is still largely under lockdown

The question is when tourism will once more account for a significant proportion of the gross national product? Spaniards will not be allowed to travel the country again until the end of June at the earliest. For the moment, the virus is so prevalent that half of the country will remain largely locked down all next week. In the other areas, hotels, restaurants, and terraces will partly open again from Monday, May 11th. Fear of the virus has long since given way to the much greater fear of losing everything else. They are eager to get back to work. If need be, even as staff with face masks who’ll wait on guests seated around tables that are protected by plastic screens. Fun, friendly, and lucrative is something else entirely.

Innovation in tourism is not that simple

For example, the fight against COVID-19 has changed from a fight for public health to a veritable carnage of the economy. The virus has so far killed more than 26,000 people. But along the way, it destroyed about one million jobs in Spain. Unemployment is skyrocketing in the wake of the 2010 construction crisis. On both sides, the losses are many times greater than anyone would have dared fear during the huge holiday trade fair held in Madrid last January. Practically nobody talked about innovative tourism. Why would anyone slaughter the goose that lays the golden eggs? But is the coronavirus destroying the chicken or egg now? That remains to be seen.

Innovation in tourism is not that simple. The unique combination of sun, sea and the best cuisine in the world has been improving steadily over the course of forty years. “Tourism is a very complex world,” says a friend of mine from Barcelona. “Everything can disappear in one fell swoop. And then it’s not just a matter of designing a Tesla to get things up and running again.”

Innovative design

It is up to, for example, the hotel industry to attract a completely different type of customer with innovative design. As the founder of design institute DIOS, Juan Mellen is in his own way endeavoring to lay a foundation for a new kind of tourism. Where guests can enjoy high-quality hospitality in a modern way, in combination with sun, beach, and tapas.

Read Koen Greven’s earlier columns here.