Americans could soon be ready to travel the world again, and many countries are eager to welcome U.S. tourism dollars back. But with most of the world lagging behind the United States in vaccinations, there could be uncomfortable disparities between travelers and their hosts.
A possible preview of the dynamic unfolded in Spain over Easter, when German and French tourists filled flights to favorite island destinations, while frustrated Spaniards were subject to coronavirus restrictions that prevented them from moving beyond their home regions.
European travel is not yet an option for Americans. The European Union still bans nonessential travel from the United States, as it deems U.S. viral levels too high. Meanwhile, a third wave of the coronavirus has shut down many of Europe’s cities. Parisians can’t stray more than six miles from their apartments. Rome’s restaurants are closed to sit-down dining. Shops in Munich have been shuttered.
But E.U. officials are racing to put together a vaccine passport system by June that would ease travel inside the 27-nation bloc by creating a standardized way for residents to prove they have been tested or inoculated or are otherwise immune.
And officials say they plan to publish a proposal within weeks for lifting restrictions on travelers from outside the bloc. They just need to hash out what the plan will look like.
Countries are split. Tourism-dependent nations such as Italy and Greece want to reopen as soon as possible. Germany, France and other countries that are less dependent on visitors want to be more cautious.
They are also mindful of the optics. “It would not be a good look if British and American tourists are better-treated than Europeans” because of vaccination status, said one E.U. official, speaking on the condition of anonymity to discuss the internal considerations about how to open borders to countries that are vaccinating more quickly.
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The most optimistic European leaders hope the problem will resolve itself.
“We just need to see how the pandemic evolves in the U.S.,” said the secretary of state for global Spain at the Spanish Foreign Ministry, Manuel Muñiz, who has helped craft his country’s international covid-19 response. “In Spain, the numbers will quadruple in terms of people vaccinated per week. This is a problem that might just dissolve itself through the vaccine strategy.”
But amid ongoing vaccination struggles, including delayed supplies and fresh safety restrictions on the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine, Europe is likely to remain far behind the United States.
So far in Spain, 17 percent of residents have had at least one dose of a coronavirus vaccine, the same as the average across the E.U., which ordered vaccines collectively. In the United States, 36 percent of people have gotten at least one dose, and 22 percent are fully vaccinated.
President Biden has asked states to open vaccine eligibility to all adults by Monday, with a goal of having enough people vaccinated to resume a degree of normalcy by early summer. In Spain, by contrast, the focus is still on essential workers and people in their 80s; the goal is to get 70 percent of the population vaccinated by the end of September.
That means if the continent rushes to reopen for summer, travelers who are protected by vaccines could be hosted by people who themselves still haven’t had access to the protection and remain vulnerable. No one wants to spark new waves of infection.
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Many in the tourism industry are nonetheless hungry for Americans to return.
Tourism accounted for 12.4 percent of Spain’s total economic output in 2019, but that figure dropped more than two-thirds in 2020. Last year, the number of visitors to Spain was the lowest in 30 years.
Before the pandemic, 80 percent of the patrons of Pablo Muñoz’s Madrid-based luxury cycling business, Bike Spain Tours, were American. Last year, he gave them all refunds. This year, he wants them to come back – although he said he’s hoping for 70 Americans this year, down from 400 before the coronavirus. He is booking trips that start at the end of August, unsure what will happen before then.
“Everything could change if they decide to allow U.S. travelers in,” Muñoz said. “I’m an optimist, and it can’t get any worse than last year.”
In 2019, Mexico and Canada were the top destinations for U.S. travelers. European countries followed after: 3.9 million Americans visited Britain, 3.2 million went to Italy and nearly as many went to France, according to U.S. government figures. Americans aren’t the main national group that visits European countries – that role is usually occupied by other European nationalities – but they are coveted customers because they come for long stays and often visit several countries in a single trip.
“People are dying to return to travel,” said Eduardo Santander, executive director of the European Travel Commission, a Brussels-based tourism industry lobby group. “We’re pretty optimistic.”
He said he expected that the U.S. government and the E.U. would reach a reciprocity agreement to recognize vaccine and testing information. And though Europeans would be delighted to have Americans back, he said, their own governments would also need to make sure internal travel was possible.
“If you can make it possible for tourists to travel, you should also make it possible for people to travel in their own countries,” he said. “People will not be harassing tourists for spending money in their restaurants and hotels. But what people will see is that their own policies and lawmakers are failing them.”
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For now, travel within the E.U. is halting, complicated and sometimes contradictory.
In Spain, European visitors have been allowed to travel to certain islands if they have had a negative coronavirus test within 72 hours before their departure. Spanish residents were given no such option over the Easter holiday, barred from traveling outside their own regions in an effort to slow the spread of the virus, which has been creeping upward for weeks.
Germans, in particular, booked flights to Mallorca, a favorite national destination, after Germany lifted a quarantine requirement for people returning from the Balearic Islands last month because viral levels were low. German flights that arrived in Spain were crowded, although overall tourism numbers remain far below their ordinary level and beaches were largely empty.
The influx frustrated many people, especially when images surfaced in local media of foreign travelers breaking rules requiring masks in public.
“I can’t go to my second home, where I am going to continue with the same safety measures I use in Madrid, but foreigners can travel to our beaches and disobey our laws? It’s a lack of respect for Spaniards,” said María Amparo Naturil, 53, a stay-at-home mother.
She and her family skirted the added restrictions Spain placed on domestic travel during the Easter holiday by driving down early from Madrid to their second home in Marbella, on Spain’s southern coast. She said she was exasperated to find foreign travelers when she arrived and saw the police frequently reminding them to wear masks.
She blamed the government’s slow pace of vaccinations as part of the problem.
Right now, she said, it’s “just everyone locked up at home, except the international tourists.”
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Birnbaum reported from St. Louis and Rolfe from Madrid. The Washington Post’s Quentin Ariès in Brussels contributed to this report