EU transport, tourism plan aims to protect summer vacations

A view of an empty and closed beach in Tel Aviv, Israel, 26 March 2020. EPA-EFE/ABIR SULTAN

The European Commission will adopt a comprehensive strategy on Wednesday (13 May) – already seen by EURACTIV – which aims to make sure governments reopen for tourism business in a coordinated manner. The EU executive will also wade into the divisive voucher vs refund debate.

Coronavirus lockdowns have closed borders, shuttered services and dealt a stunning blow to the EU’s tourism sector. As the outbreak begins to show signs of subsiding, the question of how to go back to business as usual is on the agenda.

The Commission’s strategy, which is still subject to change and will be discussed by senior officials later today, will recommend a three-phase approach to reopening borders that brings together member states “with similar overall risk profiles”.

Europe’s disease control agency (ECDC) will be drafted in to keep a list of areas with low circulation of the virus, so that “blanket quarantine measures” within Schengen can start to be scrapped.

Non-discrimination on nationality rules will apply to any decisions. For example, if Austria were to relax border measures for arrivals from Germany, that would apply to all EU citizens that reside in the Bundesrepublik, not just Germans.

In its communication, the Commission notes that the virus is set to cost the global tourism industry up to €400 billion this year and uses data from the Joint Research Centre to map which EU members and regions are most exposed to the predicted slump.

Commission to adopt broad summer package on 13 May

Prospects for the coming summer season may get a bit clearer for Europeans next Wednesday (13 May) when the European Commission is expected to adopt a broad package on tourism, transport and borders in the context of the coronavirus crisis, according to an internal document seen by EURACTIV.com.

All aboard

The issue of how to marry hygiene and social-distancing measures with a resumption of transport services is also dealt with in the draft communication, which again calls for a coordinated approach that does not discriminate against any member state.

“General principles will support prioritising the resumption of transport services for all nodes,” the document says, adding that measures should be risk-based, proportionate and “limited in scope and duration to what is necessary to protect public health”.

UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson faced blowback after announcing new virus measures on Sunday evening (10 May), when he said travellers arriving by air would finally be subject to quarantine measures.

The lack of clarity in the announcement over how the new checks will be made and whether they also apply to arrivals by ferry and Eurostar also raised concerns about whether the UK’s lockdown policy is well thought out or not.

In the Commission document, guidelines on how to protect transport workers and react to changing epidemiological conditions are also included, as well as a proposal for “a bespoke zero-pollution & nature fund”.

That focus on the sustainability aspect of travel is aimed at making sure the sector does not go back to its old polluting ways. It will include using renewable energy in hotels and replacing vehicles like tourist boats with less polluting vessels.

The draft communication also mentions “preparedness plans” that would help mitigate the impact of a second wave of the virus or another crisis.

Europe’s airlines rebel against social-distancing jet set

Coronavirus social-distancing measures will not work on board aircraft, Europe’s airlines say, as the aviation industry and governments consider how to get planes back in the sky. But carriers elsewhere are willing to trial new ideas.

Passengers first

Travellers will be able to consult an interactive map put together by the JRC, which will include the latest border controls, measures and travel conditions. The idea is to allow people to plan journeys more efficiently and even avoid travelling if possible.

Under the heading “Preserving consumer protection while addressing the issue of reimbursement claims”, the draft document also broaches the subject of travel vouchers and cash refunds.

According to EU law, cancelled flights mean airlines must offer passengers a full cash refund. While allowing for the possibility of a voucher instead, the rules maintain that it is up to the consumer to decide which to accept.

A majority of member states and a growing number of MEPs had asked the Commission to propose a temporary waiver for that tenet in order to help travel companies preserve liquidity and offer coupons instead.

MEPs enticed by lure of airline vouchers over refunds

Members of the European Parliament are increasingly siding with the aviation industry’s plans, already backed by most EU countries, to reimburse passengers with vouchers instead of cash refunds. Their support may force the Commission to change the rules, which it has so far resisted.

But the EU executive insists that refunds will remain the de facto safety net for passengers, although the guidelines will suggest a common rulebook for vouchers so that companies can try to make them as attractive as possible.

That will include insolvency protection, transferability options and a guarantee that they will be valid for a cash refund at the end of a one-year expiry date. The Commission says that protection against company bankruptcies should be organised at the national level.

“This will strengthen European citizens’ confidence on which the transport, travel and tourism industry should re-build their recovery,” the document adds and also confirms internal market Commissioner Thierry Breton’s recent pledge to organise a tourism summit.

Breton promises support to Europe's tourism, mulls sustainable tourism summit in autumn

As tourism is one of the hardest-hit sectors in the current health crisis in Europe, a special summit in September or October could be organised to deal with the fallout of the pandemic, Internal Market Commissioner Thierry Breton told MEPs on the European Parliament’s Transport Committee on Tuesday.

[Edited by Zoran Radosavljevic]

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