When the government-imposed Covid-19 quarantine began in Buenos Aires City, Daniel Tenenbaum installed himself in his empty hotel to protect it from a possible squatter invasion. Other owners boarded up windows and doors too, fearing long closures. More than 15 months on, with Argentina’s borders still closed to tourists, the hoteliers are still suffering from the lack of guests.
Despite periods of relaxed restrictions since last October, the hotel owners of the nation’s capital do not perceive any major immediate changes in their new reality of empty rooms, darkened corridors and silent lobbies.
"The hotel situation in Argentina, and especially in Buenos Aires, is disastrous after 15 months without work and complete lockdown," says Gabriela Akrabian, president of the sector’s chamber of commerce and the owner of the 97-room Hotel Wilton in the traditional neighbourhood of Recoleta.
"We are in total despair because we know that it’s not just a matter of waiting out a week. Our horizon extends to October to see what happens then," she adds, thinking of the arrival of spring and advances in vaccination which could permit the country’s frontiers to be opened up to tourists.
The sector figures is the hardest-hit in Argentina. The first quarter of this year saw the economy growing 2.5 percent as against the first three months of 2020 – hotels and restaurants were down 35.5 percent year-on-year.
The Federal Capital district of Buenos Aires, with some three million people, houses almost 900 hotels, of which 70 percent are shut down, estimates the Hotel Association, since their activity depends fundamentally on foreign tourists and events.
"Buenos Aires was the biggest convention centre in Latin America," affirms Akrabian, evoking the city’s multiple medical congresses and major cultural events like the International Book Fair (cancelled this year for a second year running) or the Lollapalooza music festival.
The hotels, still running at average 10 percent occupancy, have most of their staff suspended. Many employees have only been paid part of their salaries.
Tenenbaum is the owner of the Hotel Alpino, which was inaugurated by his father in 1979 in the neighbourhood of Palermo, the nightlife hub of Buenos Aires. The hotel currently has just one employee working and one hotel guest for its 35 rooms.
Given the health protocols, "it makes no sense to have porters since they cannot accompany passengers with their luggage. When a room is occupied, nobody can enter so that the work of cleaning ladies has diminished incredibly," he explains.
"Amid everything else unreal, you cannot fire anybody and nor would that be good because they would then be out on the street," he reflects.
San Telmo, the old colonial core of the city, is more desolate still. The Pellegrino family have owned the 82-room Hotel Kenton Palace there since 2012.
"All around, many shops have closed down. This has been very difficult not only for us but also the indirectly employed, the greengrocers, the dry-cleaners, newspaper vendors, limo drivers...", lists Mabel Carolina Vega, vice-president and financial manager of the Kenton Palace.
Despite everything, many have decided to keep their hotels open, determined to get over the hard times. They have been supported by the state with tax breaks and assistance to pay salaries.
Before the pandemic, the owners of the Kenton Palace had been planning to build another hotel in the mountain ski centre of Bariloche where the Pellegrinos built their first in 2004.
"That was what helped us, because that money saved [to be put towards the new hotel] was used to support our employees," who number 90 between Bariloche and Buenos Aires, points out Vega.
They also received support from the Inter-American Development Bank (BID in its Spanish acronym) and now a loan from Banco Nación.
"We hotel owners think in the long term and fantasise that we’re going to come out of this," says Tenenbaum.
Akrabian thinks so too.
"The hotel sector was a boom activity which worked well. It paid many taxes and social security contributions and when this ends, it will bounce back. It will be reborn," she assures.
by Nina Negrón, AFP