For the first time in months today, I visited the very heart of Madrid. So far I had avoided it, as I preferred not to take the metro and the memories I had of the city center‘s crowded streets were putting me off.
At the same time, I was curious to see what the vibe was, so I planned a family visit to the Botanic Garden and, from there, a walk to the historic Barrio de las Letras to have lunch in one of my favorite restaurants.
On 1st July Spain has opened its borders to foreign tourists but with some restrictions. This means that while the citizens of most European countries are free to enter, tourists from the countries still badly hit by the Coronavirus pandemic, such as the US or most of Latin America still cannot come. These are indeed some of the countries that bring most visitors to Madrid during this time of the year.
So, I expected to find fewer people around, but what I saw was beyond imagination. The city was empty as there were no tourists whatsoever. Not only that but as a consequence, many bars or restaurants were shut down. This was particularly evident in the streets such as Calle de las Huertas or around Calle Mayor that are in the very heart of the tourist activity. At the same time, I suspect that many locals (the few that still are able to live in the city center), were away seeking respite from the heat in the seaside or in the mountain, so this contributed to making the city even more empty.
I have to say that part of me really enjoyed the quiet atmosphere walking around in the pretty medieval streets. I was even able to listen to the sound of birds and I did not miss the sense of mental overload that the frenetic presence of many tourists often gives me. It would be great if Madrid’s economy was able to sustain itself like this.
However, the many shops and restaurants in the center that were shut were a reminder that this part of the city is completely dependant on the income coming from foreign tourists, and their absence results in a big number of big job losses. Local bars and restaurants are certainly worse hit here that in other neighborhoods (like the one where I live) that are less dependent on tourism.
We decided to enter the Mercado de San Miguel to see what the situation was there. This is a food deli market, very overpriced (although the tapas look very good) and usually crowded with tourists as it is just a few steps away from Plaza Mayor and it is included in every tourist guide. This time there were much fewer people than usual and were no queues in the food stalls. We were able to walk around easily with the stroller which I usually wouldn’t dream about. It was a more enjoyable atmosphere although the begging look from the sellers in the empty food stalls made me feel sad.
What is my lasting impression of Madrid without tourists? Actually a better place to live but a disaster for the local economy, especially since the city has invested so much on tourist growth in the last years. So much that the city center became a place were locals could no longer live (due to property speculation and the rise of short term lettings) and that they could not enjoy. In substance, Madrid city center was experiencing the effects of over-tourism, just like other cities in Spain and over the world.
Perhaps this crisis is an opportunity for Spain to re-think its economic strategy. For too long the country has relied on the tourism industry which is the second sector that most contributes to the economy. It is, however, a sector that can be very volatile and sensitive to adverse events, as we can now see. The kind of tourism that Spain has promoted abroad has also generally been low-cost, and it has struggled to attract interest for locations beyond the beach resorts and the main cities. The kind of employment generated is also low quality as salaries in the hospitality industry are infamously low and most of the employment is seasonal with limited rights.
Should Spain ditch the tourist industry then? Of course not (I, after all, work in the travel sector) and it would be very naive to advocate that), however, it is maybe the moment of considering investing in the development of other industries (there is already, for example, an interesting panorama in the tech sector).
At the same time when the travel recovery will come (because it will come eventually), the country should consider promoting less-known regional locations not only internally (something is already moving on that), but also to the traditional market of Northern European tourists, leveraging on the interest in the local culture, as it happens for example for Italy.
The Spanish countryside is suffering a lot from depopulation and lack of investment in infrastructure. An expression has been coined “España vacía” (Empty Spain) to explain this situation. Perhaps this crisis could be an opportunity for the España vacía to start attracting some of the revenue coming from tourism.
Urban tourism could also be re-thought as policies are certainly needed to ensure that city centers’ do not become an amusement park that alienates tourists.
From my side, I intend to write about the España vacía soon as there so much of Spain whose story deserves to be told!