Have vaccine, will travel—Europe moves closer to opening its borders to vaccinated people

May 19, 2021, 1:47 PM UTC

Europe’s beleaguered hospitality industry might finally have cause to cheer in time for the crucial summer holiday season. 

At a meeting in Brussels on Wednesday, ambassadors from the 27 member nations approved a new plan that would replace a blanket ban on travel from abroad with a set new of flexible rules drafted by the European Commission. These would enable visitors from most countries to travel to the bloc so long as they present proof of a COVID-19 vaccination. 

Additionally, EU officials are also expected to discuss later this week a “white list” of low-risk countries for which travel restrictions could be eased for travelers coming from “outside the European Union.” The United States is expected to be on that list.

Any resumption of activity could be key given Europe’s popularity as a summer vacation spot. Roughly a tenth of the EU’s economic output stems from tourism, according to the Commission, with hundreds of millions of international arrivals logged annually to popular destinations in France, Italy, Spain, and Germany. 

Europe’s disproportionately high reliance on international versus domestic air travel also means, however, that its airline industry is more susceptible to the pandemic’s damaging effects compared to other major markets. 

Global aviation association IATA estimated late last month that losses at European carriers will reach nearly one-quarter of their turnover this year and represent half of the industry’s overall $47.7 billion in red ink.

“Revenue passenger kilometers,” the industry’s metric for measuring demand, is forecast to fall 66% this year in Europe over the 2019 pre-pandemic level compared to 42% for North America.

“Because of the great significance of transatlantic air travel for the global economy, we now need a clear perspective on how travel between the USA and Europe can return on a larger scale,” said Harry Hohmeister, responsible for commercial passenger airlines at Lufthansa, in a statement on Tuesday. “Lower number of infections and a rising rate of vaccinations allow for a cautious increase in transatlantic air travel.” 

Last month, the World Travel & Tourism Council said the pandemic inflicted 18 times more damage to the industry than the 2008 financial crisis. The sector lost almost $4.5 trillion in total and shed over 62 million jobs as its global economic contribution halved, according to WTTC estimates.

“The resumption of travel and tourism is crucial for global economic recovery,” read a G20 communique from earlier this month, adding the sectors were “key drivers for sustainable and balanced growth.” 

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