What’s the most common element among the cautious recommendations from health officials, the differences in approach over the handling of the coronavirus crisis among European countries and the disparity of decisions and guidelines related to the opening of borders from one country to another?
Also common is a mood close to desperation as the decimated travel industry, vital to Europe’s economies, closes in on irreparable collapse and governments feel the urgent need to ease restrictions and open borders before summer, when in normal times most of Europe takes vacation.
Officials are under crushing pressure to reactivate the sector while preventing a catastrophic second wave of the disease.
As explained by Innovation Foundation Nesta, the travel and tourism scene at the moment “combine elements of continuity and discontinuity, realism and idealism, optimism and pessimism.”
Urgent Need: Open Borders
The staggering numbers illustrate a dire situation: Last year at this time, the world was more mobile than ever, with people taking 4.6 billion flights. The pandemic reduced that number to an infinitesimal percentage.
The UN World Tourism Organization, (UNWTO), which has released aTourism Recovery Technical Assistance Package to help guide the next steps, calculates that international tourism could decrease by up to 80% this year compared to 2019, putting 100 million jobs at risk.
“This could translate into a decline in export revenues from tourism of between $910 billion and $1.2 trillion,” UNWTO warns. “The social ripple effect is also feared to be at least equally challenging for many societies the world over.”
In a recent article entitled “The Future Of Travel,” the New York Times reports: “Approximately 100 million travel sector jobs, according to one global estimate, have been eliminated or will be. Passenger traffic on U.S. airlines is down 95% compared to last year, while international passenger revenues are expected to decrease by more than $300 billion. Domestic hotel occupancy rates fell off a cliff and now hover around 25%.”
More than 27 million people in the European Union, equaling 12% of the bloc’s work force, hold jobs in tourism, a number that reaches 20% in southern member states and accounting for as much as 20% of their economies.
Hence the urgent need for reopening borders.
A recent set of non-mandatory, general guidelines by the E.U. Commission recommending the reopening of borders have fed hope as summer nears but also have left it up to each country to decide when and how to do it.
That’s led to intense pressure from several countries for the establishment of new concepts including ‘tourist corridors’ and ‘travel bubbles’ as alternatives to the worrisome “staycation” possibility — which means remaining at home for the traditional summer vacation.
Travel Bubbles and Tourist Corridors
“With new infections beginning to recede and governments from Riga to Rome easing lockdowns, concerns are now turning toward the resumption of cross-border vacation travel, which had been expected to generate 2020 spending of 1.3 trillion euros, or $1.4 trillion,” reports the New York Times.
The ‘tourist corridors’ are considered Covid-19-safe travel zones linking the places that have brought outbreaks of the coronavirus under control, such as one considered between the Czech Republic, Slovakia and Croatia — countries that have experienced relatively few cases of the virus — allowing some beach resorts to reopen with restrictions, in time for the peak summer season.
The “travel bubbles” which The Economist calls “a good kind of bubble” is similar to the corridors and also has been gaining favor as a way toward the economic recovery of the industry although, as the magazine writes, “the economic gains would be large, but the health requirements could be vexing.”
The bubbles would bind together groups of countries that have fared well against the coronavirus, allowing each other’s citizens to enter and exit freely. For the ones outside the bubbles, quarantine restrictions would still apply.
According to the World Economic Forum, the Baltic states of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania are creating a ‘travel bubble’, allowing citizens to travel freely among them. Anyone entering from outside the region will be required to spend 14 days in quarantine.
New Zealand and Australia also have committed to introducing a “trans-Tasman” bubble as soon as it’s safe to do so.
Any measures aimed at opening travel activities still are and will be carefully controlled and applied on a limited basis, with agreements such as ‘travel bubbles’ and ‘tourist corridors’ struck among neighboring countries, while traveling for or toward further destinations still kept restricted.
Swarming to Beaches, but Not Freely
Countries in Eastern Europe — Poland, for example — have said that they would prefer to keep their borders closed to West European travelers at least until mid-June. They aim to bolster domestic tourism and ease entry for eastern European neighbors including the Czech Republic, Slovakia and Hungary.
Inside the countries, the relaxation of restrictions have produced an immediate influx of local tourists to popular places. This weekend, Greece opened 500 of its beaches as a heat wave hit the country and as a test of the country’s readiness for its biggest hope: to be ready for international summer tourism, which translates into 25 % of the nation’s income and one of every four jobs.
“Sunbathers swarmed beaches across the country, taking cool respite from scorching temperatures and over a month-long period in lockdown,” wrote the New York Times. “Yet as they entered ticketed facilities a new reality set in. Sun loungers at many sites were fastened to the ground to secure social distancing.”
Shade umbrellas must be planted at least four meters (13 feet) apart, a maximum of 40 beachgoers are allowed per 1,000 square meters (11,000 square feet) of beach, kiosks are not to play music, bars are prohibited from serving alcohol, water sports and other recreational activities on the beaches have been banned, municipal workers and police are deployed to spot offenders. Sun-seekers caught violating social distancing rules are subject to fines of about $1,100.
Sex Buddies and as Much Freedom as Possible
In the Netherlands, a sense of normal is returning, with schools and shops reopening and the relaxed attitude characteristic of Dutch culture emerging as the country loosens rules on sex during the pandemic, among others.
After instructing people to have sex only with their steady partners, the National Institute for Public Health and the Environment has published guidelines permitting single people to have sex again with people outside their homes, or “sex buddies,” as long as they follow rules that limit the spread of the virus. “Discuss together how to best do that,” the document says. “Follow the rules around the new coronavirus.”
The authorities have been fast to explain that the advice should not be interpreted as official authorization for random sex but that people who already knew each other or were in relationships and didn’t live in the same household are allowed to have sex again. “You are your safest sex partner.”
Despite protests around the country against the government’s handling of the pandemic, Germany — along with Austria, Switzerland and France — has started easing border restrictions, with the expectation of lifting them entirely by June 15, in time for summer vacations.
The plan is to ease checkpoints first and then fully reopen the borders on the principle of “as much freedom as possible and as many restrictions as necessary.”
In France, the government has authorized gatherings over 10 people in private settings but banned them in public areas. The lifting of the lockdown started on May 11, with the opening of shops, children returning to school and people being able to move around freely without the permission slip that had been required.
Italy and Spain, the countries most severely stricken by the contagion, are further than the rest of the continent from the prospect of unfettered vacation travel.
Government and travel officials in both countries said they aim to reopen beaches and tourist sites by the summer, yet many fear 2020 will be a total loss unless flights are restored, which most experts doubt will happen that soon.
Italy, which began easing restrictions in early May, has been working hard to find the delicate balance between opening the country without triggering new waves of infections. Officials have announced they plan to lift travel restrictions starting June 3.
Croatia, which suffered a 99% drop in visits in the spring compared to last year, hopes to attract at least some of the sun-seeking visitors who won’t be able to go to Italy or Spain.
The country also wants to establish a tourist corridor with several neighboring countries, including Slovenia, to ensure tourists can visit the country’s popular Dalmatian coast.
In the U.K, “the good weather drew many people to their favorite beauty spots after the government allowed unlimited travel for outdoor exercise or sunbathing. Visitors flocked there despite people being asked to “think carefully” before visiting national parks and beaches, writes The Guardian. “In some parts of England, tourism chiefs cautiously opened their doors to visitors at some other national parks and beaches, but warned that people may be turned away if hotspots become too busy.”
At the international level The UN World Tourism Organization, has calculated that international tourism could decrease up to 80 percent this year compared to 2019, putting 100 million jobs at risk. Faced with this scenario, governments, companies and even tourists are thinking of a safe way to resume activities so companies and small businesses that live off tourism do not go bankrupt in the medium term.
last year the world was more mobile than ever, with people taking 4.6bn flights
President Macron said it was “too early to cry victory,” and that a first milestone would be reached on June 2nd.
“Depending on the evolution of the epidemic, we will be able to continue with a new phase of lifting the lockdown,” he said.
France on Monday, May 11th, began to lift the lockdown, with some shops reopening, some children returning to school, and people being able to move around freely without the need for a permission slip.
On Wednesday evening, the interior ministry confirmed to French daily Le Parisien that the rule limiting gatherings to 10 people only concerned those in public settings.
Gatherings of more than 10 people in private areas such as homes would be tolerated.
It has been left to “civil responsability
LOCAL: Sweden’s Foreign Ministry has extended its recommendation to avoid non-essential overseas trips until July 15th, the government announced on Wednesday afternoon.
The advice was initially issued on March 14th for two months, but this is the second time it has been extended, and further extensions may still come, Foreign Minister Ann Linde warned.
She said that the advice was primarily linked to travel restrictions and the fast-changing global situation which could leave travellers stranded rather than the risks posed directly by the coronavirus.
“Quarantines are a reality in a large proportion of the countries of the world. The uncertainty is great. It’s not possible to predict when it will be possible to travel freely. This advice may be extended, or could be lifted before July 15th,” Linde warned.
so it’s still possible for individuals to travel although they would have to contend with significant reductions in flight traffic and quarantines for inbound travellers in many countries.
When the Foreign Ministry advises against travel, this also has an impact on things like travel insurance validity, so people who take a non-essential trip against the advice and find themselves stranded or in need of assistance may end up heavily out of pocket.
Linde also said that Sweden welcomed the European Commission’s guidelines on international tourism which were published today.
These included recommendations that face masks should be worn during travel, although Sweden’s Public Health Agency has expressed doubts over the effectiveness of such a measure.
“There is a risk for false sense of security, that you feel you can’t be infected if you have a face mask,” Prime Minister Stefan Löfven also said.
At the same press conference, the government announced a slight relaxing of recommendations relating to domestic travel. Long non-essential journeys should still be avoided, but travel of up to two hours by car, within small groups of family or close friends, is possible if people use common sense, ministers said.