I brought the glass of wine to my lips and saw the light pouring in through the foliage, fine beams of gold streaking the grounds of the XIV square. Pigeons sauntered near the fountain, cooing, pecking at the soil, their heads suddenly lifted with suspicion; a group of art students from the nearby Massana school sketched on large pads, their brows furrowed. Els Jardins de Rubió i Lluch in Barcelona’s Ciutat Vella lay open like a verdant oasis, the soothing sound of splashing water in the background. I held the Penedès wine in my mouth and tipped my head back, felt the coolness of the slabs of stone behind me.
All this happened in February of 2020, before the effects of the pandemic were felt across the world. Those of us fortunate enough to have experienced the unique magic of Barcelona may be going through a multiplicity of feelings right now. Nostalgia and longing, yes, but also a feeling of appreciation for what once was somewhat easy: traveling. When could we marvel at the sober perfection of the Mies van der Rohe pavilion? Or when could we browse again in the second hand bookshops near Sant Antoni and later go to sip vermouth with friends? Only time will give us the answers.
Eduard Torres holds a degree from the ESADE Business School and founded the Duquesa hotel group, which has three hotels in the province of Barcelona. He also founded the building restoration company, Med-Building, and is vice-chair of the Barcelona Hotel Association. He is also Patron Secretary of the “Fundació Vila Medieval de Cardona”, which aims to preserve and improve the cultural heritage of Cardona. He is a member of the SHE Foundation, an entity led by Dr. Valentí Fuster, which aims to promote people’s healthy habits.
In December of 2019, he became the new chair of the Turisme de Barcelona Executive Committee, and has been working to boost tourism beyond Barcelona, creating synergies with other economic sectors and tourism enterprises throughout the region.
Eduard Torres speaks with Travel Tomorrow about the difficulties that tourism has so far faced, the actions that Barcelona has taken to adapt to better cope with the challenges, the progress of the vaccination campaign, and more.
12 million people visited Barcelona in 2019. In 2020, there was a drop of 70% or the equivalent of EUR 10,000 million lost in revenue. What measures have been taken to help alleviate the impact so far?
Indeed, the impact of the health crisis on the tourism sector is very important. We had never experienced such a situation before. This is a very resilient sector to the crises we were used to, so far. And this is a turning point for the sector to consider for the future of this industry. During this time that we have been locked up at home, have worked very intensely side by side with all the organizations, entities, administrations involved in some way in this sector, to try to alleviate the damage and seek ways to prevent the death of companies.
On the one hand, aid has been offered to the sector but this is not enough because it is money that must be returned anyway. We think that the best help that can be offered is to get customers, visitors back. And for this reason, we have approved a Strategic Plan with a series of promotional, marketing actions with a clear commitment to digitalization and sustainability.
We think that now we have the opportunity to take a step forward in this direction to make a revolution in this field, so that in the future it is more sustainable. On the other hand, we were the first to go out to tell “Barcelona is a safe destination”, and how it has prepared to receive visitors, and this is important.
How is the vaccination rollout coming along in Barcelona? In Catalonia? What are the main challenges ahead?
Vaccination, as everywhere in Europe, has arrived and is being implemented according to the planned schedule and the established deadlines and age groups. Whether there are circumstances outside its implementation that make the process faster or slower is another issue, more of a scientific and medical nature. The forecast is that about 70% of the population will be vaccinated this summer. Be that as it may, vaccination is here and the levels of immunity of the population among those vaccinated and those who have already passed the virus, are on the rise.
Our Barcelona Tourism Data Observatory publishes a weekly report in which we explain precisely how the vaccination curve is evolving. As more immediate challenges it is clear that it is the recovery of tourism, and to do so taking advantage of the stop, to rethink the tourism model. We are already doing this and in fact we already have it perfectly analyzed and dimensioned. Vaccination, protocols, technology to detect and take care of the influx of major tourist attractions to prevent congestion, and sustainability
Many travel & tourism businesses are on the brink of collapse. Is there room for talk of sustainability? Can a restart of tourism and sustainability coexist? How?
Precisely in times like these, of crisis, disorientation and uncertainty, is when the best opportunities to rethink development models emerge. In tourism and in any other field. In tourism, we had been talking about the negative externalities of tourism for a long time, and we had come to a dead end around sterile debates – true or not – in which there was no time to analyze or reflect, to act later, but everything it consisted of entering a very endogamous and pernicious circle to advance.
Now, we are facing an ideal time to think about what we want, how we want it and how to do it. Sustainability is an obligation, not a purpose. We all have a responsibility to move forward in these terms, environmentally, socially and economically. And this is one of our main lines of action. Tourism and its future will depend on the degree of responsibility we all have. We must make tourism sustainable, quality, respectful of the destination that ensures the sustainable balance of the destination. We will look for this tourism and at the same time we will size our services and our offer in terms of sustainability, so that the model is consistent.
What lessons can we, as a society, learn from this pandemic to improve the way we live and travel for future generations?
The main lesson is the realization that risk 0 does not exist. From here, we will have learned many things such as the importance of distances, the need to relate, to maintain proportionality in everything we do …. in tourism, above all we have understood that it is a resilient sector but also very sensitive to any change that occurs, a sector totally dependent on mobility that must innovate to adapt to new situations. Future generations will look for more personalized and individualized experiences, where the experiential factor will take on great importance. Hygiene and health measures will be taken into account and all this will be internalized in a completely normal way. We will continue to travel because it is an irreplaceable source of knowledge and an activity intrinsic to human beings.
Will vaccination help us return to a “safe” mode of traveling? Or will we nonetheless have to accept a level of risk in our lives from now on?
The risk exists and we must know how to live with it. And in this sense health will become a central axis of travel. Even so, traveling is safe and there are enough mechanisms to make it so. Vaccination is a key and very important piece to end this pandemic … but we must be aware that other risks are likely to come. We have terrorism and the security measures that we have implemented at airports, we have the risk of natural phenomena, the risk of food, and we are overcoming all these risks in one way or another.
How will Barcelona’s tourism offer redefine itself to remain as attractive as always to visitors in the “new normal”?
With a new product that meets with the new demand, it will surely be more demanding, where health will be at the center and will take a very relevant importance. A new offer will emerge where the personal health and well-being factor will be central. In general, a very personalized offer, thinking of the individual, and which highlights the uniqueness of our way of life and to put value on our differentiating factor as gastronomy, culture, lifestyle, beaches and leisure and work spaces.
Will the 2021 summer season in Spain — in Europe as a whole — be saved? What needs to be done to avoid a further erosion of the travel & tourism industry? Can it be done in a safe way?
With current vaccination levels we believe we will see the light at the end of the tunnel, and that the start of the exit from this situation will be seen from June. The airlines are already planning trips from this month, which is vital for a sector like ours and for Barcelona, where 80% of visitors arrive by plane. There are very important source markets for Barcelona, such as the English one, where the vaccination rate is very high. But we think that the relaunch of tourism will be consolidated in the second half of the year.
In these times of restricted mobility, some countries have reshaped their strategy to include “workation” packages in their tourism offer. Visitors can continue to work remotely while experiencing a different setting and culture. Is this something that could you foresee happening more and more in Barcelona and in the world at large?
This phenomenon of digital nomads, was already occurring in some countries, especially for young people who have a huge online way of life, for travel and work. But now with Covid, telecommuting and distance work it has come to stay. And in this sense, we had been quick to react from the point of view of the tourist offer. At Turisme de Barcelona we have introduced a new product aimed at this new segment of the population, the Barcelona Workation. With this product, Barcelona offers itself as an ideal destination, to welcome this type of temporary visitor, and offers a range of services and products designed to meet the needs of a demand, that is sure to increase in the coming months and years.
To obtain a more sustainable tourism, we are looking for longer stays and this market segment gives us this factor of temporality of the stay, but also of seasonality with a very interesting professional profile for the destination.
In late March, EU Commission Thierry Breton stated that the EU health pass should be ready by June 15th. Its implementation could restore freer movement within the Block. What are your thoughts on this strategy? What needs to happen for this to work?
I believe that these mechanisms are fine and necessary, but its usefulness depends heavily on circumstances and the moment they arrive. At the moment, it is very difficult to agree between countries, and it has been achieved, at least at European level. However, its success will depend on the recognition it receives from other countries and those who are reluctant and will also ask for quarantine. What is certain is that we need unique homogeneous protocols and measures to circulate across all countries.