Germany has begun the process of bringing home tens of thousands of its nationals stranded abroad due to the coronavirus pandemic, Foreign Minister Heiko Maas told DW in an exclusive interview on Tuesday.
"Today alone, 30 to 40 planes will take off for destinations around the world to bring back tourists," Maas said, adding that the operation would "take a few days."
The minister told DW's Melinda Crane that the government has "chartered planes from airlines — especially Lufthansa — with which to bring Germans back from abroad."
He said there are some 35,000 German tourists in Egypt, some 4,000-5,000 in Morocco and thousands more in countries like Argentina, the Philippines and the Maldives. People were contacting German authorities at home and abroad in large numbers, requesting help, he added.
"That is why we are making this huge offer, we have made €50 million available for this purpose," Maas told DW.
He said that the government wasn't able to "offer a 24-hour solution for everyone" but would strive to help "as many as possible who are abroad and have problems returning to Germany."
The minister called on Germans abroad to contact the Foreign Ministry's crisis center or their nearest German Embassy for flight information.
'Not responsible to fly abroad'
Maas said the government was working on the assumption that scheduled and charter air traffic would continue to decline globally as the COVID-19 pandemic worsens. He also reiterated the German government's demand that residents cancel their foreign trips for the time being.
"We want to make it clear that at the moment it is not responsible to fly abroad at all. I don't know whether we will be able to maintain the kind of repatriations that we are currently undertaking in two or three weeks."
"If international air traffic continues to be reduced, if borders are closed and airports are closed … no one can say for sure how things will develop in the days and weeks ahead; no one can say whether travelers can return as planned."
On Tuesday, there were 194,217 confirmed coronavirus cases worldwide, according to data from Johns Hopkins University. The World Health Organization has said that Europe is now the epicenter of the pandemic, with 64,903 infections in Italy, Spain, Germany, France and the UK alone. The huge spike in cases prompted several EU countries to announce unprecedented peacetime lockdowns.
Many countries on other continents with much smaller numbers of cases have stepped up restrictions on tourists and business visitors from Europe. China, where the coronavirus outbreak first emerged in December, is trying to stop foreigners and returning Chinese nationals from bringing the virus back.
Melinda Crane contributed to this report.