Europe ‘nowhere close’ To Reopening For Tourists

It was the sort of development that might catch the eye of anyone weary of lockdowns: The Italian island of Sicily wants to lure back tourists by discounting plane tickets and covering every third night in hotels.

But even as European nations begin to emerge from stay-at-home restrictions, they are nowhere close to reopening as international vacation destinations.

The most optimistic countries - Greece and Portugal among them - hope there's a chance they might be able to pitch themselves as safe options by the second half of summer. Others, including Italy, are looking to regional travel to partially salvage their tourism industries and economies, while they sort out when to reopen borders and whom to let in.

"It is too soon to say whether we can take holidays," President Emmanuel Macron told French citizens on Tuesday. "What I can say is that we will limit major international travel, even during the summer. We will stay among Europeans and, depending on how the epidemic evolves, we might have to reduce that a little more."

Travel has been tightly restricted in Europe since March, when the continent's vaunted open borders closed in quick succession, and the European Union shut its external boundaries to nonessential travel. European leaders credit the combination of those closures and strict social distancing measures with helping them to slow the spread of the novel coronavirus.

Now, as governments seek to get their societies moving again without triggering an unmanageable spike in transmissions, they are counting on continued or even reinforced restrictions at their borders to help maintain some level of control.

The European Union's ban on nonessential travel from countries outside the bloc is set to expire on May 17. But one E.U. official, speaking on the condition of anonymity to discuss deliberations, said the ban was highly likely to be extended for another month, at least.

On top of that, some countries are considering mandatory quarantines for international arrivals.

British Transport Secretary Grant Shapps told the BBC last weekend that he was "actively looking at" the possibility of a 14-day quarantine, "so that when we have infection rates within the country under control, we're not importing."

British airline lobbyists objected that a quarantine would be a "blunt tool" that "would effectively kill air travel."

A provision under consideration by the French parliament this week would require 14 days of isolation for new arrivals and up to 30 days for people with symptoms.

The government has clarified that people from the European Union would be exempt, as would, for instance, truck drivers transporting good. But it remains unclear whether the measure would apply to travelers from all other countries, or only those on a French government list of "zones where the virus is circulating." Macron earlier voiced particular concern about the United States being behind Europe on the outbreak curve.

Within Europe, too, the progression of the virus may influence when borders between countries come down.

Thierry Breton, a European commissioner who handles tourism policy for the E.U. bloc, told French radio that it is likely that certain areas of the E.U. would be open to tourists and others not. He said borders could turn on and off between E.U. countries depending on the outbreak.

"It is like this, and it has to be accepted," he said. "The borders of the pandemic do not match geographical borders."

Austria, which has been confident in its virus management and was among the first European countries to relax its lockdown, has broached the idea of a travel bubble with neighboring Germany, which has been similarly credited with its coronavirus response.

German tourism commissioner Thomas Bareiss confirmed to Der Tagesspiegel newspaper that Germany was in talks with its neighbors about permitting summer vacation travel.

"I hope that, given the good numbers, we will be able to relax the restrictions in the next four to eight weeks," he said, adding that destinations "that can be reached by car" would be the most likely possibilities.

Other countries, though, don't appear ready to reopen their borders any time soon.

France has extended its coronvirus-related border controls until the end of October. Denmark, Norway and Sweden have indicated that theirs will continue until at least Nov. 12.

Some officials have expressed hope that coronavirus tracking apps might enable countries to open their borders to fellow Europeans, while retaining the ability to alert people who may have been exposed to the virus. But such apps are in their early stages. There are concerns about whether the voluntary technology will be adopted widely. And the versions France and Britain are pursuing may not be compatible with the rest of Europe.

For the tourism dependent economies of southern Europe, there is widespread resignation that this will be a crushing summer. The European Union is trying to draw up a tourism "Marshall Plan," and countries including Italy, France, Spain, Portugal and Cyprus are asking for specific support for tourism businesses.

Christina Tetradis, the vice president of the Hellenic Chamber of Hotels in Greece, said that 65 percent of member hotels feared they were at risk of bankruptcy.

"Greece has 1 million people working in tourism and tourism related services," she said. "This is a huge issue. It means many of these people may work less, or not at all this summer. They also have little chance of finding other work."

Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis, in a Sunday interview with CNN, said tourism could resume "only if we agree to very specific protocols, hopefully at the European level." He said the "best-case scenario" is that Greece is "open for business" on July 1.

"Let's assume people get a test before they fly out and then we carefully monitor them, either an antibody test or a [diagnostic] test, and then of course the tourism experience this summer may be slightly different," he said.

Mitsotakis said it depended on whether the global pandemic was on a "downward path."

Italy - which is only just beginning to loosen Europe's longest coronavirus lockdown - will be far more reliant on domestic travel.

For now, Italians are only free to move within their own region for specific reasons, including to visit relatives. Any other travel must be for health or work-related purposes.

In southern Italy, which was spared the worst of the outbreak, there has been resistance to the notion of accepting visitors from the hard-hit north. The normally tourist-friendly region of Puglia in the south continues to impose quarantines on those arriving from northern regions.

But the tourism sector is getting desperate.

"A regional reopening would give us back some oxygen," said Caterina Valente, 55, the owner and manager of a hotel in Rome.

Still, she said, she isn't sure that would be enough. "For the next two to three months, hotels will only live thanks to the internal market. It won't be good. We live thanks to foreign tourists."

Many of the variables have yet to be sorted out, but one of the biggest factors facing travel has to do with the travelers themselves: whether they have the money for vacations, and whether they think boarding a plane or train for another country is too great a risk.

"Optimistically, I feel that by September or October [tourism] could all start anew, but I may be too optimistic," said Giorgia Tozzi, 48, the manager of Hotel Vilòn in Rome, which depends mostly on foreign clients. "Until there's a cure or a vaccine or until people will be certain that by coming to Italy they won't fall sick, or risk it - or that they can then go back home - it'll be difficult for them to make the trip."

Chico Harlan