As summer approaches, temperatures are starting to rise in Europe, and citizens are looking towards their next vacations after months stuck at home under lockdown restrictions.
Just last week, the European Union unveiled a plan to “offer people the chance to get some well-needed rest, relaxation and fresh air,” which included recommendations to open internal borders, revive rail, road, air and sea connections and reinvigorate its hospitality sector to boost tourism.
But authorities are already struggling to deal with an influx of tourists and locals to one of summer’s most coveted locations: The beach.
On Wednesday, just days after France’s lockdown restrictions eased to open hundreds of beaches, Brittany’s northwest prefecture of Morbihan closed five beaches following “unacceptable behavior” and failure to comply with social distancing measures.
Meanwhile, authorities in the Dutch coastal province of Zeeland on Wednesday temporarily closed roads into the town for every weekend until June 1 because of predicted good weather and an expectation that emergency measures could be violated.
In Barcelona, Spain, officials have warned citizens to stick to timeslots when visiting the beach, and in the UK, ahead of a public holiday on Monday, councils for seaside towns and cities have issued pleas for crowds to stay away.
Summer – but with more rules
Travel expert Tony Johnston told CNN that as the summer season approaches, people were bound to travel to beauty spots like beaches, either in their own countries or further afield.
He said that authorities need to prepare clear strategies to deal with an influx of tourists and overcrowding as the holiday season begins.
“Whether it arises this weekend or in mid-July it certainly will arise – it’s inevitable that we will have good weather at some point across the continent and the problem will come up,” said Johnston, head of the Athlone Institute of Technology’s department of hospitality, tourism and leisure.
He said that instead of imposing an outright ban on tourism, authorities would do best to encourage good behavior on the beach, noting that closures will just “push the problem elsewhere.
Local authorities in some countries have already started to lay out guidelines on how they will reopen busy beaches.
Following one of Europe’s strictest lockdowns, Spain’s tourism minister Reyes Maroto told local newspaper El Pais that the country was “defining different scenarios” for beachgoers.
“We have to guarantee, when international tourism opens, that the person who comes to Spain is a safe person,” Maroto recently told local newspaper El Pais.
“On how you will be able to enjoy our beaches, we are defining different scenarios,” he said.
Officials in the Mediterranean town of Canet d’en Berenguer, located north of Valencia, will only allow 5,000 daily sunbathers on its local beach – around half the usual number.
In Sanxenxo, Galicia, cleaning machines will be a regular feature on the beaches, and public bathrooms and shower areas will be disinfected regularly.
Authorities in some French prefectures, such as Landes in France’s Nouvelle Aquitaine region have so far committed to opening beaches only for “dynamic individual physical activities.”
Johnston told CNN that with so many regions – particularly in Spain, Italy, France and Greece – financially dependent on tourism, officials should be keen to encourage safe tourism, and should have policies to promote good hygiene in public areas like bathrooms and eateries.
“We have around 330 million people working in tourism. There is going to be a challenge between satisfying the needs and desires of tourists, along with the economic impact of tourism, against the whole Covid situation,” he said.
A change in behavior
As the weather warms, experts also worry that adherence to social distancing guidelines may have already begun to slip. In an ongoing study, researchers from University College London found that less than than 50% of respondents under 30 were complying “completely” with lockdown rules.
Susan Michie, professor of health psychology at UCL, told CNN that evidence from long term quarantine situations from around the world has shown that lack of compliance often comes as a result of boredom, frustration, depression and anxiety.
“If you think about the psychology of it, you’re weighing up the pros and cons of staying indoors versus going outside. The arguments against going outside and meeting up with friends is that we still have a pandemic on and this virus transmits very easily,” she said.
She added that the better the weather, the more people will go out.
“But having said that, viral transmission is overwhelmingly happening indoors, not outside. So actually outside is relatively safe – it’s people getting together indoors. That’s a real problem,” she added.
For people to comply with social distancing guidance, there also needed to be high levels of public concern regarding Covid-19, and trust in authorities, she said.
Governments, she said, should be clear, precise, and consistent with messaging this summer. “You know exactly who’s allowed to do what, when, where, and how.”
Risk of a second wave
Virus deaths may have reduced daily in many European countries, but experts warn that the continent could risk a second wave if they don’t tread carefully.
Paul Hunter, a professor of health protection at England’s University of East Anglia, told CNN that the risk of virus transmission outdoors remains low, but encouraged social distancing and hygiene, such as washing hands regularly.
The risk of spreading the virus would depend on how many people visit tourist hotspots, and how they act when they get there, he said.
Pointing to the UK, which has seen a decline in officially recorded deaths in recent days, he said: “We’ve seen new cases drop quite dramatically over the last three, four weeks, if not longer actually, and so, there might not be actually that much risk associated on a personal level.
“However, if we are seeing an increase in cases again and people are packing themselves in like sardines on beaches or in surrounding pubs and what restaurants and things like that, then that risk is quite high,” he warned.
“The danger is that as we open up, that actually we could start moving into the second wave,” he added.
CNN’s Eva Tapiero, Sophie Stuber, Mick Krever, Al Goodman, Tamara Hardingham-Gill contributed to this report.