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COVID-19 crisis raises specter of distress in Mediterranean hotel sector

SNL ImageAt this time of year, there are few places more appealing than Europe's Mediterranean coast. Its sun-drenched beaches and beautiful, historic cities are a magnet for millions of visitors from around the world.

The COVID-19 pandemic has completely changed that ⁠— and wreaked havoc on the region's vast hospitality sector. The devastating impact of the virus on Italy and Spain, particularly, combined with widespread international travel restrictions, spells trouble for a significant number of hotels in two of the world's most popular tourist destinations.

"It seems inescapable that the European hospitality sector is going to have a bit of a reckoning in the coming months," Matthew Pohlman, a partner in global law firm Goodwin's real estate group, and a member of its hospitality and leisure practice, said in an interview. "And these markets in Italy and Spain are prime for that."

Most exposed to that reckoning are small, independent, often family-owned hotel businesses that rely on a summer influx of tourists, according to several sources familiar with the markets.

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The summer season is likely to be constrained, or completely canceled, for many hotels due to travel restrictions and social distancing regulations, and widespread distress among them is predicted.

"Smaller disparate ownership groups that do not have institutional backing or access to debt or equity capital markets are a likely arena where you'll start to see true distressed activity," said Pohlman, who acts on behalf of a number of multinational hotel operators, investors, developers and private equity firms in the Europe, the Middle East and Africa region. Family-owned or smaller outfits in southern Europe fit this description, he said.

Privately owned and managed hotels account for a greater proportion of the market in this region. In Italy, they make up about 38% of chain hotels, according to the 2019 European Chains and Hotels report by Horwath HTL, while the figure in Spain is about 55%. In comparison, these hotels account for about 14% and 29% of chain hotels in the more mature German and French markets, respectively, the report said.

Government measures to stem the impact of the coronavirus lockdowns are keeping many hotels afloat. Italy's government has committed until August to pay 80% of the total wages of workers furloughed as a result of the crisis, while in Spain, 70% of furloughed workers' wages will be paid until they return to work. Both governments have also provided assistance to businesses in the form of guaranteed loans.

Fabio Braidotti, hospitality real estate adviser for Italy at EY, said it is only when these measures begin to ease that the exact scale of the damage done to the Italian hospitality sector will become apparent. "We'll have to wait until September or October to see the true impact of all this because that's when layoffs will start to be tangible," he said. "From September onward, we'll really see how deep this crisis is."

Braidotti expects the damage to manifest itself in the hotel-related nonperforming loan market toward the end of 2020. "The [unlikely-to-pay loans] will technically become NPLs the minute the moratoriums end, which is September," he said. "I'm sure that the NPL market will boom, but not before the end of the year."

Significant trade in hotel properties is unlikely to reappear for another 12 months, at least, as sellers await a recovery in the market, he added.

The Italian and Spanish hospitality sectors are no strangers to tough times. The 2008 global financial crisis and subsequent eurozone sovereign debt crisis battered both economies, contributing to significant distress in their hospitality sectors, according to Juan Garnica, executive director, head of hotels at Spanish real estate services firm Savills Aguirre Newman.

"The industry, in general, is better prepared for the current downturn than 2008, with a higher degree of concentration among assets and operators, despite a still very fragmented property structure characteristic of the Southern European markets," he said in an email.

Still, the scale of the crisis faced by hoteliers in Europe's Mediterranean region is unprecedented as tourist bookings struggle to recover from record low levels. Spain and Italy are the second and fifth most visited countries in the world, according to the 2019 United Nations World Tourism Organization report, with 83 million and 62 million visitors, respectively, in 2018.

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Italy opened its borders June 3 to visitors from the 27-nation European Union, the U.K. and the Europe-focused Schengen travel area. Italian Health Minister Roberto Speranza said, "There are still no guarantees for openings to non-Schengen countries."

Spain will reopen its borders with most other EU countries on June 21, except Portugal, which has requested their land border remains closed until July 1. The country plans to open its border to non-EU countries from July 1. Its foreign minister said June 16 that the country was considering imposing a 14-day quarantine on visitors from the U.K., which accounts for 18 million visits to Spain each year, in response to the U.K.'s plans to do the same to inbound arrivals. The country is carrying out a pilot project in the Balearic Islands involving 1,500 German tourists before opening its borders. Hotels on the Mediterranean islands will have infrared cameras to measure body temperatures and are limited to 50% occupancy.

Tourists' willingness to travel to Southern European destinations in the coming months while the pandemic still rages will be a crucial factor in the survival of many hotel businesses, said Goodwin's Pohlman. "Some of the urban markets in those countries and the resort markets need and rely heavily on international arrivals," he said. "The challenge of international travel is going to be a complicating recovery piece for markets like Spain, Italy, Portugal, and Greece."