The EU Council's recent decision to remove the U.S. from its safe travel list has left concern, as well as some confusion, in its wake.
The Council released its statement on the matter Monday, removing the U.S. from its list of countries for which restrictions should be lifted and, in essence, recommending that restrictions for U.S. inbound travelers be restored. An infographic shared by the Council, however, indicated that the EU continues to support travel into the EU by those who are fully vaccinated, suggesting that unvaccinated travelers would likely bear the brunt of any resulting policy changes.
The recommendation, however, is not "a legally binding instrument," with each EU member state left to individually decide whether or not to ramp up restrictions on U.S. inbound travel.
An EU official told Travel Weekly that if EU member states are currently allowing vaccinated travelers in, they are able to continue to do so, while at the same time, members who are not requiring travelers to be vaccinated would be under no obligation to change their policy.
The EU official added that the purpose of the Council's recommendations is to try and align EU member policies as much as possible.
Italy was the first to respond to the EU's updated guidance with enhanced restrictions, announcing this week that travelers coming from the U.S., including those who are vaccinated, will need to obtain proof of a negative Covid test 72 hours prior to entry into the country. Children under the age of 6 are exempt from the testing policy. Previously, fully vaccinated travelers did not need a test to enter. Unvaccinated travelers must quarantine for five days and then take a test.
Jack Ezon, founder and managing partner of New York-based travel agency Embark Beyond, reported that Italy's sudden protocol change has served as something of a bellwether for clients, resulting in many opting to push their European travel timelines forward.
"I would say that of everyone we've had traveling [to the EU] in the next 10 days, around 40% of them have moved that trip to go even sooner, because they want to get in before the doors close," Ezon said. "So, they left yesterday or they're going tomorrow. People are moving up their trips before any other decision is made."
Ezon added that much of Embark's focus has been on "getting ahead" of any client confusion or misconceptions related to the announcement.
"Every article out there says, 'it may prohibit [travel],' and clients read this and then they're in a panic," Ezon said. "We need to get out there and say, 'yes, they moved us to the red list,' but then explain what that means. And in essence, it means nothing. It's a suggestion."
Phillip Archer, founder and chief experience designer at San Francisco-based Roaming Richly Travel, said he's been inundated by client phone calls since the EU guidance change.
On Tuesday, he put out an email addressing the situation, telling his clients that it would "seem extreme" for EU members to opt to ban all travel from the U.S., "especially when it is quite evident that those who are vaccinated and following pandemic mitigation recommendations seem to be at far less risk."
"We are more likely to see other requirements for travel that better mitigate risk, like testing prior to and during travel, even for those who are vaccinated," wrote Archer.
Tour operators have also had to proactively engage in customer outreach. Collette, which had already announced that it would require that all travelers on international tours be fully vaccinated starting Sept. 1, put out a statement assuring clients that the company's EU itineraries would continue to operate.
"Our guests are fully vaccinated, and our team continues to do its due diligence in vetting every aspect of travel within the European Union, while adhering to necessary testing and guidance that has been set forth," said Collette CEO Dan Sullivan Jr. in a release.
Meanwhile, Daniel Scher, a travel consultant with Strong Travel Services, a Dallas-based Virtuoso agency, said that the EU's move has brought European business "to a standstill," reporting that a client set to travel to Milan this week recently decided to cancel his trip, citing "too many possibilities to deal with."
The EU's announcement "will cause people that are on the ledge about traveling to reconsider," added Scher.
Margie Hand, an Andavo Travel affiliate based in Birmingham, Ala., similarly worried about the level of uncertainty the EU's guidance has spawned.
"I feel like many of my clients that were starting to make plans for European travel will now hold off until we know more about specific countries," Hand said. "This does add another wrinkle for agents in an already difficult time."