By Catarina Demony and Nathan Allen
MADRID/LISBON (Reuters) - Neighbours Spain and Portugal reopened their border on Wednesday to all travellers after a three-month closure to prevent the spread of coronavirus, bringing relief to local business owners who have struggled to make ends meet without tourism.
"It has been miserable since we reopened in May. There are no customers," Jose Valentim, a restaurant owner in the Portuguese border town of Elvas, told Reuters. "We hope that from today onwards some Spaniards will be able to come.
For Luis Pinheiro, a 53-year old construction supervisor who commutes across the border every day from the Spanish city of Badajoz to his native Portugal, the reopening has emotional as well as economic significance.
"Now you can start to see friends who you've been missing for a long time," he said. "There will be a big reunion and this will start to bring back the connection between the two countries."
Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez and his Portuguese counterpart Antonio Costa oversaw short ceremonies in Badajoz and the Portuguese town of Elvas to mark the reopening of their 1,200-km (750 mile) border.
Both countries' flags flew as national anthems were played at the events, which were also attended by Spain's King Felipe and Portugal's President Marcelo Rebelo de Sousa.
"We are two fraternal peoples who share not only history, culture and affinity, but also a vision of what happened with the pandemic and the challenges and transformations that lie ahead," Sanchez said in Elvas.
All other travel restrictions within the European Union were lifted last week.
"Our shared prosperity and common destiny within the European project depend on this border being open," Costa tweeted earlier on Wednesday.
The border had remained open to the transport of goods and cross-border workers throughout the epidemic but tourist and leisure travel had been restricted since mid-March.
Most of Portugal downgraded to a "state of alert" on Wednesday, with gatherings still limited to 20 people, but restrictions remained stricter across Lisbon's suburbs as authorities tackle a surge in coronavirus cases.
Portugal has been hailed as a coronavirus success story but it now has the second highest number of cases per 100,000 inhabitants in Europe after Sweden in the past 30 days, according to the European Centre for Disease Control and Prevention.
With nearly 250,000 cases and more than 28,000 deaths Spain was worse hit, but authorities managed to bring the outbreak under control through one of the world's strictest lockdowns.
(Reporting by Inti Landauro and Nathan Allen in Madrid and Catarina Demony and Victoria Waldersee in Lisbon; Editing by Nathan Allen and Angus MacSwan)