The European Commission on Wednesday (13 May) set out plans for a phased restart of travel this summer, proposing a gradual lifting of borders in an attempt to kick start a tourism sector hit hard by the COVID-19 pandemic.
“This is not going to be a normal summer… but when we all do our part we don’t have to face a summer stuck at home or completely lost for tourism industry,” Commission Executive Vice-President Margrethe Vestager told reporters.
“Today’s guidance can be the chance of a better season for the many Europeans whose livelihood depends on tourism and, of course, for those who would like to travel this summer,” the Danish official added.
Travel and freedom of movement restrictions aimed at combatting the virus have already had a devastating impact on Europe’s tourism sector, which in total accounts for 10% of GDP and 12% of jobs.
Southern countries in particular, like Greece, Italy and Spain, Europe’s top holiday destinations, are already struggling with debt and the impact of COVID-19.
“We are helping European tourism get back on track while staying healthy and safe. We propose a common European approach to manage what will remain a difficult 2020 summer season, while preparing for a more sustainable and digital tourism ecosystem in the future,” Commissioner for the Internal Market Thierry Breton added.
Millions of SMEs and family-run businesses working in accommodation, restaurants, passenger transport and travel agencies risking bankruptcies and job losses “urgently need to go back to work,” Breton said.
“Our message is we will have a tourist season this summer,” said Economic Affairs Commissioner Paolo Gentiloni, “even if it’s with security measures and limitations.”
Three-stage approach on borders
The EU is proposing a three-stage approach, starting with the current situation in which most non-essential travel across borders is banned, saying the guidance was based on the principles of safety and non-discrimination.
While the decision over reopening internal Schengen borders fall to the member states, Brussels is urging the 27 EU states to take a coordinated approach to lifting restrictions – after a haphazard start to the crisis in which capitals closed frontiers with little or no consultation.
Last week, Home Affairs Commissioner Ylva Johansson told MEPs that the Commission would reject selective border openings.
“Member states cannot open the borders to citizens of one EU country, but not to another,” she said, adding that nationality should not decide on the possibility of entering and leaving the EU.
According to the non-binding recommendations, member states should work together to gradually remove travel bans and then border checks, while keeping targeted measures as the COVID-19 outbreak comes under control.
In the next phase, the EU wants border restrictions lifted between countries and regions at a similar stage of the pandemic, and where the health situation is improving.
In the final phase, all coronavirus-related border controls would be lifted and travel permitted throughout Europe once again.
Brussels is urging governments to consider economic and social factors as well as health as they weigh up reopening their borders.
In one of the first steps, a “Baltic bubble” is set to come into operation on Friday (15 May), with Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania having agreed to enable travel by rail, sea and air between the three countries, but with a quarantine initially in place for travellers from other member states.
Austria plans to reopen its border with Germany on 15 June, but beyond, there is great caution across the bloc.
Face masks and social distancing
Vestager said no-one should travel if they felt sick or experienced symptoms, adding there were four areas vital to enable the safe return of travel and tourism – travel, borders, health and vouchers.
“Workers and travellers need to know that hotels, restaurants and beaches are safe,” she added.
According to the recommendations, travellers should wear face masks while on shared transport such as planes, trains and buses – as well as at hubs such as airports and railway stations.
Fewer passengers may be allowed on board to allow them to maintain safe distancing, and buffet trolleys and dining cars will be shuttered.
Hotels and restaurants will be urged to limit guest numbers so they can respect social distancing rules.
In order to keep a close eye on the progress of the disease and quickly identify any hotspots, Vestager said the the various contact-tracing apps being worked on by European countries to monitor the spread of COVID-19 would have to work across Europe.
[Edited by Sam Morgan]