Lockdowns, vaccine delays conspire to push Europe travel to late summer

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Colosseum in Rome, masked woman [Credit: Viacheslav Lopatin/Shutterstock.com]
Officially, the EU's more than yearlong ban on inbound travel from the U.S. and most countries outside the region remains in effect, but its members are not bound by that. Photo Credit: Viacheslav Lopatin/Shutterstock.com

While the success of the Covid-19 vaccine rollout in the U.S. has fueled optimism about a strong summer travel rebound, tourism officials in Europe say that slower progress on vaccines there coupled with new surges likely means any widespread return of Americans won't happen until late summer.

Tom Jenkins
Tom Jenkins

"I don't see anything happening in terms of Europe as a whole [opening] before late July," said Tom Jenkins, CEO of the European Tourism Association. "There's a possibility that July may yield something, but most people are looking at August, September."

Jenkins said one exception could be the U.K., which is much further ahead of the region in vaccinations.

Officially, the EU's more than yearlong ban on inbound travel from the U.S. and most countries outside the region remains in effect, but its members are not bound by that. 

Blue Lagoon near Reykjavik, Iceland
Blue Lagoon near Reykjavik, Iceland

For instance, Iceland on April 6 opened to international visitors who can show proof of a vaccine or recovery from a previous infection. Greece has said it hopes to open in mid-May to vaccinated travelers. And Croatia has lifted its travel restrictions for fully vaccinated visitors.

And many expect more countries, particularly in Southern Europe, to follow suit.

But with many countries back in lockdown and concerns about rare blood clots from the AstraZeneca vaccine further delaying already slow vaccine rollouts across the region, both Jenkins and European Travel Commission CEO Eduardo Santander said the current travel landscape looks a lot like it did a year ago.

London at dusk [Credit: Bucchi Francesco/Shutterstock.com]
Photo Credit: Bucchi Francesco/Shutterstock.com

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"Besides a few destinations with a relatively stable epidemiological situation in the south of Europe, travel is essentially on hold now all across Europe," Santander said. "Many European countries are introducing stricter measures right now hoping to quickly halt the third wave of infections."

The good news, Santander said, is there seems to be the political will by EU members to pass a digital health certificate that tracks vaccines, Covid tests and those who have recovered from Covid in order to open borders across the region.

Santander said he hopes the plan can be adopted by June and said there is hope that the EU and the U.S. can reach agreement on a common technology for such certificates to ease travel. He said there have been some talks recently between European leaders and the Biden administration about how to open travel. And airlines are aggressively lobbying to reopen U.S.-Europe routes.

Eduardo Santander
Eduardo Santander

"There is a principle of cooperation there," he said. "We had in the forecast that international travel would resume at the end of the third quarter of the year. We think if the digital solution works ... Europe will be able to open to the U.S. and other long-haul destinations much earlier."

Some American travel companies remain optimistic of earlier restarts, albeit fragmented until the EU is able to agree on a framework for lifting its ban on most international visitors.

Globus, for instance, was set to a announce this week that it was resuming operations in June to select international destinations, including Iceland, which is part of the EU's passport-free Schengen Area.

Chief marketing officer Steve Born called it "a step toward broader operation in Europe, as we anticipate access will expand in the coming weeks for the back half of June leading into July."

Dan Mahar, CEO of Tauck, said, "I think there is a chance for some countries, based on their own particular circumstances, to make decisions that are best for their country.

"The world could look very different there in 60 to 90 days. Look how different our world looks," Mahar said.

And a growing number of cruise lines have announced plans to start sailing from Greece and Iceland. Just last week, Viking said it will begin sailing from Iceland in May. Seabourn announced it will launch cruises from Greece out of Athens beginning July 3. And Crystal Expedition Cruises' said its first ship, the Crystal Endeavor, will launch service in Iceland in July. 

Like many tour operators, most river lines that market to U.S. travelers are officially paused through June, although some plan to operate limited cruises before then.

Rudi Schreiner, president and co-founder of AmaWaterways, for instance, said Germany is on lockdown until at least April 17, but their German partner is still hoping to start cruises for German travelers there May 12.

"Some countries might open up prior to July," he said, "but I still don't expect North Americans to be cruising on our ships before August; maybe late July at the earliest." 

Similarly, Marcus Leskovar, executive vice president of Amadeus Waterways, said they hope to start sailing with European passengers in June and with American travelers later in the summer. 

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