Felicity Long
Felicity Long

Here in the U.S., as cases of Covid-19 continue to climb in some states and drop off in others, the topic of which regions can and should reopen -- and how -- has become a hot and sometimes contentious topic.

In Europe, which after all, comprises separate countries with their own languages, cultures and infrastructures, it's not surprising that a similarly fractious scenario is playing out.

And, as here, the disparate strategies are evolving as the all-important summer tourist season approaches.

To put it into perspective, Europe represents a staggering half of the world's international tourism arrivals, according to the World Tourism Organization (UNWTO), and already the impact of the virus has caused a precipitous drop of nearly 20% in international arrivals in the first quarter of 2020.

The European Commission, which oversees the 27 EU member countries, at first sought a unified reopening approach. But before long, given the uneven way the virus has impacted various parts of the Continent, a multiphase, regional approach seemed inevitable.

To be clear, we're not talking about Americans traveling to every country in Europe tomorrow. On May 8, the commission extended its temporary restriction on nonessential non-EU travel to its member states -- originally set in place in mid-March -- to at least June 15.

What we are talking about, however, is a reopening of some borders within the EU to visitors from other European countries with similar virus outbreak profiles.

(For the record, all EU countries except Ireland are considered part of the Schengen Area, an agreement reached in the mid-90s that opened member countries to one another without passport requirements. Many of these borders were temporarily reinstated in February and March in response to the virus.)

Germany, which has fared relatively well in its pandemic response, has been among the first to start relaxing border restrictions with neighboring countries, including Austria, Switzerland and France, and is looking to lift them entirely by June 15.

Similarly, the Baltic countries of Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia have created a " travel bubble" that allows inhabitants to move more or less freely from one country to another.

While we in the U.S. wait for our invitation to cross the pond, I suspect we'll benefit from this lag period, as European countries cautiously work out ways to open their tourist attractions to their own citizens and to other EU members.

Creative experiments in how to safely operate museums, restaurants and beaches as well as hotels and tourist attractions -- all with social distancing guidelines in place -- are already underway throughout the Continent and will likely be fine-tuned by the time we are able to travel internationally again.

Will attractions be reimagined to improve people flow? Anyone who has ever crammed into the elevator at the Eiffel Tower will appreciate the challenge that presents.

Will more restaurants serve meals on open-air terraces, and if so, will we be dining under heat lamps and wrapped in shawls in the cooler months? Are breakfast buffets, so beloved at European hotels, gone for good?

Will we have to make reservations for our spot at the beach and sunbathe in cabanas spaced 6 feet apart?

And what role will technology play in all this? The UNWTO just released a Tourism Recovery Technical Assistance Package offering support for "economic recovery, marketing and promotion and institutional strengthening and resilience building" as members tackle the emergence from lockdown.

Watching and reporting on these efforts in the coming weeks should go some way toward reassuring would-be travelers that Europe will be safe to visit once again.

After all, what's the point of a reopening if no one comes?


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