Locals reclaim Madrid as their city while waiting for the tourists to

MADRID — Crammed with visitors from all over the world just a few months ago, Madrid is now a bittersweet paradise.

Devoid of the extra foot traffic, residents are reveling in new post-lockdown freedoms and reclaiming the once heavily trafficked plazas, the picturesque streets and the parks. The Royal Palace grounds fill with children on bikes and skateboards every afternoon. Chirping birds, church bells, soft conversations and traditional music from balconies provide the city’s new soundtrack, giving off village vibes rather than those of a tourist hot spot and major world capital.

“There are so many words to describe it. It is a tense calm, it is a return to the past,” says Carmen Cristino Orejana, a 50-year-old, fifth-generation Madrileña, who says the post-coronavirus period is the strangest yet in a city that has lived through so much, including a civil war and the Franco dictatorship.

The exterior of the famed Prado Museum, as seen on Sunday in Madrid.

Barbara Kollmeyer/MarketWatch

Of course, for those who have lost jobs due to the pandemic, to call it a paradise is probably off the mark. Spain’s unemployment exploded by more than 500,000 during the March-April lockdown, though job losses slowed to just over 26,000 in May. And more than 3 million are temporarily laid off and hoping that status won’t become permanent.

Orejana is among the nearly three million people in Spain whose job depends on tourism. Her Viajes con Carmen tours specialize in flamenco history, old Madrid and food tours. Before the pandemic, she would take small groups around Madrid, Córdoba and elsewhere. Now she relies on €500 to €600 ($567 to $681) in monthly assistance from the government.

The 1778 Puerta de Alcalá in Madrid’s Plaza de la Independencia.

Barbara Kollmeyer/MarketWatch

The tourism sector accounts for more than 12% of gross domestic product, and the Bank of Spain has warned of a worst-case 15.5% drop in economic growth next year. The left-leaning coalition government, which has been the subject of protests over its imposition of one of the strictest lockdowns in Europe, has said the country will lift its required 14-day quarantine for foreign tourists on July 1.

It is clear that Spain needs its visitors, though how and when are questions on everyone’s minds here. And some want to see changes.

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