The closure of European borders to American tourists in March, with no clear end, has been one painful facet of the pandemic. Six months later, Americans are starting to travel again, but international destinations are still limited.
Even with some pockets of Europe available to American tourists, including Croatia, the United Kingdom and North Macedonia, the question of when the rest of the continent will reopen remains. And with Europe’s uptick of coronavirus cases and the U.S. death toll still rising, there does not seem to be a clear end in sight to the travel ban. Does that mean Americans should hold off on planning trips across the pond?
We spoke with four insiders on European travel to get their thoughts on when Americans may be able to return.
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Rick Steves, author, travel guide and activist
Rick Steves, America’s Godfather of European travel, sounds sullen on a phone call to discuss the pandemic and its effect on travel.
“It’s whack-a-mole until we get a grip on the virus,” Steves says, explaining that when one pocket of the United States starts to reduce its cases of the coronavirus, others lighten restrictions and see new surges of cases. “I’m really disappointed that people are so impatient and they don’t realize that you can’t just jump back to normalcy when things start to look good.”
Earlier this year, Steves’s company was scheduled to take tens of thousands of Americans to Europe on guided tours; those trips were of course canceled and refunded, and now he’s started a waitlist — already 10,000 families deep — for potential 2021 tours.
“The idea is when it’s safe, we want to go [to Europe] with you,” he says. “We’ve booked the tours. We want to do the tours, but we are going to provide the leadership and the integrity not to risk anybody’s health by doing these tours.”
Steves says he’s hopeful for Americans to be able to return to Europe in 2021, although he’s more concerned that the businesses that make European travel so special will not survive the economic fallout from tourism remaining on hold, not to mention the economic crisis would-be American travelers are facing at home.
“We have more immediate needs right now, and that’s dealing with the reality of the economic division in our own society here,” Steves says. “When the easy money from the government runs out and this pandemic stretches on because of our inability to get a grip on it, I think are our concerns are not going to be, ‘Can I get a flight to London?’ “
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Eduardo Santander, executive director of the European Travel Commission
Eduardo Santander says he had been hopeful for a summer tourism bounce-back.
“Obviously that didn’t crystallize in the end, because of the beginning of the second wave of outbreaks in different countries and regions,” Santander says from his home in Brussels. “For the first half of 2020, [European tourism was] down 66%, but now we are down in some places even by 90, 93%. So things are not looking very good at the moment.”
Santander leads the European Travel Commission, an association that represents the European Union’s national tourism organizations. He says he understands why Americans feel confusion and frustration about not being able to travel to Europe, or know when it may be possible. In the beginning of the summer, the ETC tried to convince E.U. member states and members of the Schengen zone to agree on a consistent protocol for resuming tourism. With every country carrying out different coronavirus-abatement strategies, Santander says the consequence has been an even more fragmented map of Europe.
While domestic tourism in Europe has resumed, Santander says American travelers have been missed. They will likely not be allowed back to Europe before late December.
“We are actually advocating that governments, the U.S. administration and also the European Union, work together,” Santander says. “Because if we come [up] with standardized protocols for testing and tracing, not only in Europe but also worldwide — or if you want it just between the U.S. and the European Union if that makes it easier — I think traveling is not at risk at all.”
Santander says he does not discourage Americans to plan or book trips to Europe for 2021, as long as the reservations are adjustable or refundable: “People should not stop dreaming about traveling.”
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Simone Amorico, CEO of Access Italy
Access Italy is a luxury travel company that primarily guides American customers, including former president Barack Obama and Oprah Winfrey, on private tours. With the company’s main season running from March to November, CEO Simone Amorico says it knew early on that 2020 would be a wash.
The company has been taking this time for research and development. Amorico says his team has been exploring Italy and developing ways for clients to have safer experiences, such as finding private villas and yachts to book.
Amorico does not expect Americans to be able to return in 2020. “I just hope it will be before spring of 2021, which I believe most certain it will happen,” he says, adding that he thinks by March or April there will be tools (such as faster coronavirus testing) in place to facilitate safer travel between the United States and Italy.
Meanwhile, Amorico says requests for 2021 bookings are already trickling in despite the unpredictable situation.
“Our suggestion is not to confirm anything yet, but once the border opens, to try and book as fast as possible, because there’s going to be a huge demand for next year,” he says. “Americans just can’t wait to come back to Europe, especially Italy, especially after they’ve been told that they cannot come next year.”
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Sanna Kyyrä, Finnish tourism official
In the years leading up to the pandemic, American tourism in Finland was on the rise. Sanna Kyyrä, chief specialist of tourism policy for Finland’s Ministry of Economic Affairs and Employment, says Americans were among Finland’s biggest spenders, making the United States a significant part of Finland’s tourism income.
As far as when Americans will be able to get back to the land of saunas, karaoke and Northern Lights, “unfortunately, it looks very difficult at the moment,” Kyyrä says.
Kyyrä says Finland has been following and taking part in E.U. discussions regarding which countries will be included on the “green list” for travel, and hoping it will be possible to make a long-term plan by spring to help American travelers and Finnish tourism businesses prepare for a reopening.