Fuertaventura during COVID-19

Sun, sand and sanitizer: What it’s like to travel during COVID-19

DW reporter Sarah Hucal couldn’t resist: She privately flew to the Canary Islands to find out what it feels like to go on vacation during the COVID-19 pandemic. This is what she experienced.

For weeks, I doubted that this trip to the Canary Islands, a seven-island archipelago off the northwest coast of Africa, would happen at all. It felt farther than anything that my life consisted of for the last half year, namely visits to my local grocery store and toe-numbing walks in Berlin’s cold.

In order to enter Spain at the time of writing this article, European residents had to provide a negative PCR test taken within 72 hours of arrival. Other European countries popular with vitamin D-deprived vacation-goers, like Greece and Italy, required a mandatory quarantine of several days upon arrival — a deal breaker for most holidaymakers, including myself.

With our negative PCR test results in hand and relief in our hearts, my travel companion, my best friend who also happens to be Spanish, and I headed to the post-apocalyptically empty BER airport on what would have typically been a peak travel time: Easter weekend.

Covid-19 tests

In pre-COVID-19 years, the Canary Islands were among Europe’s most popular tourist destinations. But tourist arrivals are down 91% in 2021 according to the most recent statistics by the Canary Islands Tourism board. The region is especially hard hit, since tourism income accounts for more than 30% of its GDP, just as in the Balearic Islands, another of Spain’s tourism hotspots.

Although we may have been among few people to visit this year, it certainly didn’t feel like it on our flight. Easyjet packed us together. I struggled to feel comfortable with the long bathroom queue that formed next to me and the children running up and down the aisle spreading droplets of saliva into the air with their laughter. Was worried as I ate a piece of leftover pizza, brought from the night before. The airline no longer serves food and drinks for hygiene reasons, but flyers can bring their own meals. I reapplied hand sanitizer often for peace of mind.

COVID-19 pandemic travel not for type-A personalities

Perhaps unsurprisingly, traveling during the COVID-19 pandemic is not for type-A planners. There was little point in booking our accommodation or renting a car more than a few days in advance, since we couldn’t be reimbursed if our flights were cancelled or new travel restrictions were suddenly imposed. It seemed not all cancellation policies had adapted to the times. Yet suddenly, here we were in Fuerteventura, an arid island known for its beaches, popular with surfers and other water sports enthusiasts from all over Europe.

After waiting in a short line and showing our digital registration form requested by the Spanish government, we picked up our rental car. Its steering wheel had been wrapped in plastic several times over, ensuring it was virus-free.

It was surreal to suddenly stand next to azure blue waters, with their colorful fish, which I could not help comparing with the murky waters of my local canal in Berlin, with its oversized rats.

My initial superficial impression of the seaside town of Corralejo was that we had arrived in a nearly COVID-19 free world, which wasn’t exactly true: at the time of writing this article, there were 189 active cases on the island of Fuerteventura. And of course hand sanitizer bottles and FFP2 masks were omnipresent. In Spain, one has to wear a mask even when outdoors and this rule seemed to be heeded almost everywhere we traveled.

Too early for dinner in Spain

Each island had its own set of restrictions corresponding to its determined coronavirus “alarm level,” which ranged from 1 to 5 — five being the highest alert. Fuerteventura had just been upgraded to level 3 when we arrived, which meant there were more restrictions on the island. Bar and restaurant terraces could remain open until a 10pm curfew. On a level 2 island, meanwhile, the curfew was 11pm.

While many of the stores and restaurants we passed while driving through the island’s smaller villages appeared to be closed, the town of Corralejo came alive at night, with bars and restaurants filling with young people from around Europe. After months of limited contact with other human beings, it was thrilling — albeit a bit nerve-wracking — to be around people again ordering a beverage at an actual bar, since bars and restaurant have been limited to take away in Berlin since November.

The author, Sarah Hucal, wearing a face mask during a day trip to Isla del Lobos off the coast of Corralejo, Fuerteventura
DW reporter Sarah Hucal on the Isla del Lobos near the island of Fuerteventura

It feels almost like the “old days” I thought — until a waitress came over to us and squirted hand sanitizer in our palms faster than we could say hola.

Sarah Hucal, DW

Around 9:30 pm, bars and restaurants began to clear out and people hurried to pay their bills in order to be off the streets by 10 pm. For my Spanish travel companion it was a novelty to see people quicken their pace to make it home by the time Spaniards would typically sit down for dinner.

The “worst Easter week in recent history”

Yet while traveling without the crowds can be a boon for tourists, many working in the tourism industry have been devastated. Unemployment in the Canary Islands rose to 25% at the end of 2020, the highest in Spain. Around 40% of Canarians work in the tourism sector and many have been laid off or had to rely on limited funding from the government. “It’s our worst Easter week in recent history” Tom Smulders, President of the Las Palmas Association of Tourist Accommodation Entrepreneurs on Gran Canaria told me. Only 30% of hotels on the island are open, and they were at only 50% occupancy during the typically busy period.

The islands did find a unique way to help some hotels keep their staff employed during the COVID-19 pandemic. At the end of 2020, some Canarias managed to keep their staff employed by housing migrants who had arrived on the islands via boat irregularly from Africa, while the government scrambled to build tent camps (hoteliers received compensation from the government).

For other employees like Kitti Kovacs who has worked on Fuerteventura for over 3 years, the COVID-19 pandemic has meant a job change. She now works in a tour operator stall in the harbor selling boat rides to the Isla del Lobos, a popular day trip destination from Corralejo. Previously, she worked as a hotel receptionist, but with unpredictable hotel closures, selling tickets offered more stability, since even locals make the trip regularly.

She did note one significant change on the island: “Remote workers are really saving us.” The Canary Islands government hopes the revenue brought by digital nomads will make up for the tourism losses. Already in Fuerteventura, co-working spaces have opened up and some hotels have started offering deeply discounted rates for month-long stays.

COVID-19 pandemic-safe hiking and a creepy tourist hotspot

To visit our next island, La Palma, we followed the new rules set for the Easter week, which required us to present an Antigen or PCR test before boarding our short inter-island flight. Fortunately it was relatively simple to get tested at the airport.

Over the next days on the leafy island popular with nature lovers, we hiked nearly empty trekking routes over volcanic landscapes and verdant green forests. At the charming beachside town of El Remo, we ate a bite at one of the chiringuitos de playa — seaside eateries typically specializing in fish. Our waiter thoroughly cleaned the seats and table, spraying it down with cleaning liquids before each guest arrived. It was the high level of care and attentiveness to hygiene I noticed throughout our voyage in Spain.

Our last stop was the island of Grand Canaria. The popular package tourism spots in the South, namely Playa del Inglés and Maspalomas seemed downright eerie without the masses — like a relic from another era. Themed restaurants and cafes advertising rock-bottom cocktail prices were nearly — if not entirely — empty.

Took my Antigen test at the airport and was relieved to find it was negative — not only because I didn’t want to have the virus, but also because I had no idea how I would afford to pay for 14 days of quarantine in my accommodation.

I returned to Berlin — which was luckily sunny — refreshed and relaxed, having connected with nature and recharged my batteries, despite the COVID restrictions. I would have 5 days of quarantine to reflect on the journey, which I had fully appreciated after several months of pandemic city life.

Source: Sarah Hucal, DW

Read more regarding travel in Europe:

France is testing a digital health pass, making it the first European country to trial the much-talked-about concept aimed at restarting international travel

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