Did EU COVID certificate save Europeans’ summer?

A person holds EU Digital COVID Certificate in Brussels city center, Belgium, 17 September 2021. [EPA-EFE/STEPHANIE LECOCQ]

Digital COVID certificate was originally set up as a tool to save the summer for European holidaymakers. Now that the fine weather is over, we can begin to wonder if it worked.

We have now come to be familiar with the EU’s COVID certificate and its QR code providing evidence that people have been vaccinated, tested negative or recovered from COVID.

Although some member states also adopted the EU’s certificates to grant access to restaurants and public offices, they were originally conceived to enable citizens to travel freely within the EU during summer while staying safe.

For the same reason, they were intended to save the struggling European tourism sector.

In a recent parliamentary hearing, the EU’s Commissioner for the internal market, Thierry Breton, said that “in 2020, the prospects for the tourism sector were bleak across the sector, and this was something that we were most anxious about last year”.

The COVID-19 burden on the travel industry can be seen when looking at the data about the nights spent at tourist accommodation establishments. Eurostat annual estimates data show a drastic drop after a decade of growing figures once the pandemic hit Europe.

In March 2020, the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic, the start of a lockdown in most EU countries, and the travel restrictions resulted in a sharp drop in overnight stays in EU tourist accommodation: -61 % compared with March 2019.

The decline deepened in April, a month of total lockdown in most countries, with -95 % compared with April 2019. It was similar for May and June 2020 as well.

According to the European Commission, the rollout of the vaccines and the introduction of the digital COVID certificate have helped to change the situation for the better.

Breton seemed to be quite optimistic about the recent summer season: “Despite the difficult situation, the summer of 2021 has been better than we expected”.

The tourism sector, he added, is not yet at the point “we would like to see”. “Nonetheless, we can say that the past season has shown that things are on the way back”.

He highlighted the European Commission’s proposal for the digital COVID certificate in February 2021 as the main factor for turning the tables.

But is that true?

Six things to know about EU certificates meant to save the summer

Although the newly proposed vaccine certificate should not be considered a second passport, the European Commission’s tool conceived to ease free movements restrictions – and save the summer season – still raises concerns ranging from discriminatory aspects to its medical validity.

Did the COVID-19 certificate work?

The EU Digital COVID Certificate was proposed as a way to ease travel across the bloc and avoid the patchwork across the member states when it comes to travel restrictions.

After the political compromise was reached in the urgent procedure, the first EU Digital COVID Certificates were generated and verified by July.

Seven member states – Bulgaria, Czechia, Denmark, Germany, Greece, Croatia, and Poland – connected to the gateway and started issuing the first EU certificates, almost a month ahead of 1 July. By 27 August, more than 350 million COVID certificates had been issued, the Commission tweeted.

“The three of the four countries which have achieved the best results in tourism are the countries which launched the digital certificate in June, immediately, as soon as they could,” Breton said recently

He added that the digital certificate has helped intra-EU tourism, especially in July and August.

While Eurostat monthly data on nights spent at tourist accommodation establishments is not yet available for August, comparing the figures from 2019 to 2021 for May, June and July show signs of recovering interest in traveling.

However, July 2021 data – when the certificate was introduced – doesn’t show a sharp increase in nights spent at tourist establishments compared to 2020.

The difference is even lower than for May or June comparing 2021 to 2020. For example, in May 2021, there were 41 million more nights; in June, the rise was 37 million; and in July only 16 million more nights were spent at tourist establishments compared to 2020.

For some yes

Some individual countries say that they see the benefit of the certificate though.

Croatia’s tourism and sports ministry’s spokesperson informed EURACTIV that in August alone so far, Croatia was visited by 3.4 million tourists, accounting for around 24 million overnight stays. These figures represent 87% of arrivals and 92% of overnight stays in the same period in August 2019.

“Thanks to the standardisation of travel processes within the EU, including procedures regarding EU COVID certificates, travel to a greater extent takes place without difficulty, regardless of the epidemiological situation in individual countries,” a spokesperson for Croatia’s ministry told EURACTIV.

While Croatia was happy with the certificate, the French report by ADN Tourisme, the National Federation of Institutional Tourism Organisations, which drew up a first assessment of the trends of the 2021 tourist season, found that many regions of France noted that the introduction of the health pass in July actually caused a slowdown in attendance at indoor visitor sites due to generating some animosity from customers.

The summer is over but the COVID certificates will remain. And while the virus is mutating, the certificate needs some adjustments too. There are ongoing technical discussions as to how to address COVID-19 booster shots. The Commission’s spokesperson said that “the Commission continues to work closely with member states to address issues that arise.”

This concerns not only EU countries, but also third countries that are also interested in joining the EU Digital COVID Certificate system. So far nine non-EU countries – Norway, Iceland, Liechtenstein, Switzerland, Vatican, San Marino, North Macedonia, Turkey, Ukraine – were connected, the Commission spokesperson said.

[Edited by Gerardo Fortuna/Zoran Radosavljevic]

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