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A one-way welcome in post-pandemic US-EU travel

Teri Schultz
June 24, 2021

The European Union is letting Americans back in, but the United States is still blocking EU citizens from its own borders. Teri Schultz takes a look at what's holding up the holidays.

A picture of the EU logo with a stoplight showing red, yellow and green spheres
As the EU opens to Americans, officials wonder when citizens can travel the other wayImage: Bildagentur-online/Ohde/picture alliance

"America is back!" the Biden administration proclaims at every opportunity, reassuring European allies of revived trans-Atlantic ties. Now American tourists are back, too, after the European Commission advised lifting restrictions on travelers from the United States.

The question many EU citizens are asking is: When can the European Union be "back" in the US?

Infographic shows rate of new infections in EU vs. US.
The rate of new infections in the European Union is currently lower than that of the US.

European Commission spokesman Adalbert Jahnz doesn't have an answer for that. "It goes without saying," he said, "that we would expect the same from partner countries outside the EU for EU citizens traveling to those countries. That's something that we make clear to our partners, and we have received reassurances that this is a high-priority issue for the US administration."

But Tuesday's EU-US Ministerial Meeting on Justice and Home Affairs indicated no breakthrough. "We are focused on the easing of travel restrictions. We understand the imperatives that it involves," US Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas told a joint news conference. "We are basing our decisions on the public health data that we have. We are really accelerating our plans as much as possible."

"Public health data," however, show that the European Union's epidemiological situation, as compared with the US's, is good and improving all the time.

Infographic shows rate of vaccination in US and EU
The European Union has been catching up to the US vaccination rate in recent weeks.

"Europe is the most vaccinated continent in the world," European Commission Vice President Margaritis Schinas said at the event.

Schinas welcomed the new spirit in US-EU relations but suggested that it should be spread societywide.

"Trans-Atlantic cooperation should not be something that would only concern specialists, diplomats, generals or technicians," he said. "There is no better way of expressing this than moving forward in the areas of easing travel restrictions post-pandemic," he added

'Simply not profitable'

In the meantime, the European Union's tourism industry will reap some benefits of the opened borders.

Will tourism ever recover?

Jeroen Roppe, the spokesman for Visit.Brussels, the communications agency for the Belgian capital's tourism office, said the US market was among the most important for the European Union. "The health situation is a constant concern for us, but we are very positive at the moment," Roppe said.  "We are very happy to see American tourists coming back to our city."

But the airlines bringing those American tourists to EU cities have few passengers when they head the opposite direction to the United States. Jennifer Janzen, of the organization Airlines for Europe, told DW that this is a serious problem for carriers — and ultimately for travelers, who will have fewer options.

"Planes are operating, unfortunately only full one way in one direction, which inevitably is just simply not profitable or will not be sustainable in the long term and will affect the number of flight connections," Janzen said. "You'll see that a lot of airlines will start to to quickly scrutinize these routes over the summer months. And, frankly, that could also lead to to cancellations on short notice if the planes are simply not full enough. We need the reciprocity."

Greece welcomes back tourists


Another looming question of reciprocity regards what kind of documentation travelers will need to prove their COVID-19 vaccination and testing status when they enter EU countries. Starting July 1, EU citizens and residents are scheduled to have a Digital COVID Certificate, which will indicate whether they are vaccinated, have a negative PCR result or have recently recovered from the coronavirus. This digital verification system is designed to be interoperable throughout the bloc and allow for easier multidestination travel.

The United States has no standardized vaccination or testing documentation that can automatically be recognized by EU authorities. "This is for us a very important question mark," said Eduardo Santander, the executive director of the European Travel Commission, which represents national tourism organizations. "We have done a lot of mistakes in the last two years, and we cannot have another wave or something horrific again happening in the course of the summer because that will be the end of the travel and tourism industry."

A previous version of this story had misspelled the name of European Commission Vice President Margaritis Schinas. It was corrected on June 28.