SWANSEA, Wales — When Sierra Schade booked a trip to from Atlanta to Greece, she hoped more European countries would follow Greece’s lead and open to U.S. travelers.
She’s now been able to add Italy and France to the itinerary for her trip next month after the 27-nation European Union recommended last week that restrictions be lifted for American tourists.
As pandemic restrictions start to ease, travelers and the businesses in Europe that rely on them are eager for a return to something resembling normal.
In 2019, before the pandemic, tourism and related activities accounted for 10% of the EU’s GDP, meaning the return of international travel is key to economic recovery, particularly for countries like Greece and Italy that rely more heavily on it. That figure was cut nearly in half in 2020, according to the World Travel and Tourism Council.
There is guarded optimism about tourists returning this year, though the EU doesn’t expect growth in the industry to return to 2019 levels until at least 2023.
Schade has flexibility because she works for an airline, but a confusing patchwork of restrictions has made booking trips trickier for average travelers. And European travelers still aren’t welcome in the U.S.
Within Europe, governments use a traffic light system where countries in green are deemed safe and countries in red unsafe, but they don’t all use the same criteria, befuddling those who want to take a trip.
And while the EU agreed that member countries should gradually remove restrictions on travelers from the U.S. and a handful of other countries, it’s ultimately up to each individual country to decide how and when it wants to open its borders. Different countries may also have different requirements about vaccinations and COVID testing.
Things could get a bit easier, at least for Europeans, when the EU Digital COVID Certificate comes into effect next week. The certificates will certify EU citizens’ tests and vaccinations, allowing them to travel between countries without having to quarantine or undergo coronavirus tests.
Jennifer Janzen, from Europe’s largest airline association, Airlines for Europe, is hopeful that the certificate, if adopted widely, will help at least combat Europeans’ confusion about travel, merging “27 different systems in order to travel, to one single system.”
She said that most Europeans didn’t bother to travel outside their own countries with rules changing constantly, but an uptick is soon expected.
“We’re going from a … long period of chaos, where nobody traveled, to now, a state where the industry is really hopeful that we will have some sort of recovery for European travel,” Janzen said.
Many businesses that rely on tourists are still in wait-and-see mode.
“Right now there is not much tourism in Barcelona because of the pandemic,” said Roger Martin. He and his parents own Bar del Pi, a tapas bar and restaurant in the heart of the Spanish city. He said the lack of young tourists and local nightlife has meant much less business.
Still, he is hopeful the EU health passport will bring more tourism and investment in local businesses, including his own.
Not everyone has waited for a health passport to make a trip or let pandemic restrictions impede their travel plans.
Irina Gatilova, who lives in the Czech Republic and isn’t yet fully vaccinated, underwent coronavirus tests for a recent trip to Italy, also crossing through Austria and Germany. Shortly after, she went on a family trip to Russia, where she currently is, knowing a mandatory quarantine awaits her upon her return home.
Gatilova supports the idea of the EU’s health passport and plans to get one after her second dose of the vaccine.
“Being outside the EU at the moment I don’t feel very comfortable in hotels or public places where they don’t ask for tests and people don’t wear masks,” she said. “If there were compulsory COVID passports for travelers, it would give me confidence and peace of mind.”
Recent data from the European Travel Commission found that two-thirds of Europeans plan to travel by the end of November.
Executive director and CEO Eduardo Santander said the travel industry in Europe is feeling additional relief and optimism with American travelers allowed in once again.
“U.S. travelers (are) very important for a lot of European destinations that really depend on them and their market power,” he said, adding that these travelers often visit multiple countries at a time.
But Europeans are still not allowed to visit the U.S., and Santander said that lack of reciprocity is posing a challenge for airlines that would prefer not to fly empty planes back to the U.S.
Still, U.S. airlines have scrambled to add new trans-Atlantic flight destinations in wake of the recent news, with American Airlines spokesperson Nate Gatten welcoming it as a “positive development”
For Schade, the relaxation of restrictions means a chance to get out into the world again.
“We were both very COVID-safe,” she said, referring to the friend she plans to travel with. “So (this trip) is our first time…being out and able to do stuff that’s not at home.”