2021 looks like a black hole for the battered European tourism lifestyle

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Across the tourist hotspots of southern Europe, they can only get ready and hope.

Vaccinations for the coronavirus are being rolled out, but it will be months before enough shots are fired for people to crowd into planes, take cruises, or hang out in crowded bars on the beach. That means companies are largely in the dark for this year’s summer season.

The expectation is that it will be better than 2020, but that’s a low bar. Only three cruise ships arrived on the Greek island of Santorini last year, compared to almost 600 in 2019. Figures released by the European Commission on Thursday showed that non-resident vacation nights in Italy, Spain and Greece fell by at least 70%, and warned the industry to prepare for another quiet year.

“Tourism flows are not expected to fully recover to pre-crisis levels in 2021,” the commission said. In Italy, tourism will lag behind the general economic recovery, as visitors “return only gradually as uncertainty subsides”.

For those in the industry, this is already evident in less than two months of the year. Paolo Manca, who runs the Felix Hotels chain in Sardinia, says that he would normally see 30% summer reservations as people get tired of the long winter nights. Instead, he looks at almost empty books.

It is a difficult situation for owners who still have maintenance and setup costs with no guaranteed income.

“We have to be ready without knowing if we can open,” said Manolis Karamolegos, who owns Meltemi Hotels and Resorts in Santorini and is president of the local hotel association. “We can’t leave the preparations until the last minute.”

Tourism is crucial for many places in southern Europe. It accounts for 21% of the economy in Greece and 17% in Portugal. Often the primary employer in regions lacking other industries, it provides crucial income for families and supports the local economy.

The outlook will improve if the vaccinations continue. Pent-up demand leads to more spontaneous vacation bookings. But the emergence of vaccine-resistant strains across the continent could prevent this from happening.

Even if last-minute bookings increase sharply, the benefits will not be equally felt. The European Commission says they will prefer destinations at home or by car to places like Greece and Portugal.

As the European Union’s vaccination campaign advances slowly and controversially, governments are looking for ways to help tourism.

Greece wants the European Union to issue a certificate so that those who are vaccinated can travel freely. According to the Bloomberg Vaccine Tracker, an agreement has already been reached with Israel, the world leader in vaccinations.

TUI, the world’s largest tour operator, said it is sticking to its plans this week to offer four-fifths of its usual vacation program this summer. It is being wagered that the rapid pace of vaccine adoption in the UK will fuel demand from UK sun-seekers.

But the British government does not share their enthusiasm. Transport Secretary Grant Shapps advised the British against booking public holidays this week amid uncertainty.

“I just don’t know the answer to where we’ll be this summer,” he said. “The best advice is not to do anything at this stage.”

Some hotels in Southern Europe are seeing stronger domestic demand, which will offset some, but not all, of the drop in sales. In Portugal, Pestana Hotel Group’s chief executive officer Jose Theotonio said the rooms in its January sales were bought by locals as ongoing fears of travel bans and quarantines discouraged foreign visitors.

While vaccines should end such harsh measures, it is still very unclear when. And governments have often arbitrarily put restrictions in place to keep businesses and their potential customers informed.

“We need detailed information from the government regarding security policies and protocols in order to be able to plan ahead,” said hotelier Manca, who is also head of the Federalberghi Sardegna hotelier association. “A lack of clarity is just as harmful to tourism as COVID itself.”