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Post-coronavirus travel in the EU is up in the air

Bernd Riegert Brussels
April 28, 2020

Once the coronavirus pandemic tapers off, people are likely to take vacations closer to home. European Union tourism ministers have no timetable for revitalizing travel. Bernd Riegert reports from Brussels.

Two travelers at the Berlin Tegel Airport wearing coronavirus prevention face masks
Image: picture-alliance/dpa/C. Soeder

No one can say when and how the borders will reopen for travel, said Germany’s Government Commissioner for Tourism Thomas Bareiss. "It is rather unlikely that German tourists will travel to Spain or Greece in summer," he added. It is more likely that Germans will stay in their own country or region this year, according to Bareiss, who pointed out that Germany has "beautiful destinations."

Read more: Where are we heading? Tourism after the coronavirus crisis

The tourism industry's economic situation is a disaster not only in the southern European states bordering the Mediterranean, but in Germany, too. The travel industry expects a drop in bookings of package tours of up to 70% this year. The EU Commission estimates that with a loss of 90%, cruise companies will be hit hardest.

Croatia’s Interior Minister Davor Bozinovic said the opening of the EU's internal and external borders would be handled very carefully. "We all agreed that we must above all prevent new waves of infection," he said after a video conference with his EU counterparts. He didn't mention a concrete timeframe.

Empty tables are pictured outside a restaurant at St Mark's Square in Venice, Italy
Italy has been hit especially hard by the pandemicImage: Reuters/M. Silvestri

Huge losses expected

In the EU, 10% of economic output (GDP) is generated by the tourism industry. In some countries, including Greece or Malta, the share of the travel industry in GDP is even higher at 20-25%. According to the EU Commission, Spain generates about €145 billion ($157 billion) in the tourism sector, while German hotels and tour operators generate around €240 billion a year.

Croatian Tourism Minister Gari Cappelli, who chaired the recent Council of the European Union meeting, said he expects that Northern Europeans will travel south during the summer season despite the pandemic as an act of European solidarity.

Read more: Lifting lockdowns, European countries go their own way

"We need a common plan for the reconstruction of tourism," Cappelli argued. He also said there should be a common health concept which would allow for a "coronavirus health passport" to be issued to tourists and tour operators. Malta's Tourism Minister Julia Farrugia Portelli advocates common EU standards for health protection in hotels, restaurants, airplanes and on beaches. "There are risks, but we must manage these risks," Farrugia Portelli said at the ministers' conference.
Other governments are more reserved, and they also are headed in different directions. Austria is allowing hotels to reopen on May 29, while stipulating that they should rent rooms to travelers from neighboring countries and, if possible, from regions where the coronavirus infection rate is low. Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz is campaigning for Austrians to spend their summer holidays in their own country this year.

Plexiglas and corridors

Hotel owners and operators of private-access beaches in Italy are developing unusual concepts to ensure potential holidaymakers can keep their distance, including plexiglas dividers on the beach, and hotels that are only partially occupied, with one-course-only menus served at tables set 2 meters (about 6 feet) apart.

Read more: Czechs float 'corona corridor' lifeline for Croatian tourism

Greece is pondering a kind of tourism corridor from Western Europe. Special planes would fly tourists who can prove their health to verified and coronavirus-free holiday resorts, the Greek Minister of Tourism Charis Theocharis said. Belgium is considering access cards for beaches. Other tourism ministers want to advertise holidays in the countryside in order to relieve hotel facilities and beaches.

However, it remains completely unclear when the EU interior ministers will agree on a coordinated plan for opening the borders for tourists. Officials in the EU Commission who are supposed to draw up guidelines for travel have been reluctant. First, the individual states would have to lift domestic travel restrictions, making travel to neighboring regions possible. Then, travel between neighboring states would have to become possible, and lastly, intra-European air traffic. No one knows when tourist travel to Asia, the US and other parts of the world will be possible again.

Make tourists feel safe

But will holidaymakers seeking relaxation and recreation want to spend a beach holiday behind plexiglas, without a party at the bar, without sports and sightseeing in a group? Maria Frontera, chairwoman of the FEHM hotel association on Spain's Balearic island of Mallorca, says the main thing now is to give vacationers a feeling of security.

Read more: Cape Town: A tourist's paradise without tourists

"It's not about returning to the way things were as soon as possible, but about all the necessary security. We must build trust and not allow ourselves to make any mistakes. The destinations that are the first to control the situation and can also credibly communicate this to the source markets will have a head start when things get going again", Maria Frontera told Mallorca Magazin, a German weekly publication.

The World Tourism Organization, a UN agency, estimates that 96% of all vacation destinations worldwide cannot be reached during the coronavirus pandemic. Secretary-General Zurab Pololikashvili, who participated in the EU ministers' discussion, called for an early end to the restrictions. "This crisis has shown us the strength of solidarity across borders," he said, adding that kind words alone will not save the millions of jobs of people who have worked in an emerging tourism sector. Pololikashvili called for more aid for reconstruction: "We demand that support be given to tourism so that it can lead the way in rebuilding the economy."


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Bernd Riegert Senior European correspondent in Brussels with a focus on people and politics in the European Union
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