Europe's ban heaps more troubles on U.S. travel industry

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Colosseum in Rome, masked woman
A woman wearing a medical mask next to the empty Colosseum in Rome. Photo Credit: Viacheslav Lopatin/Shutterstock

The European Union’s decision Tuesday to continue its pandemic-related ban on American travelers dealt yet another blow to the beleaguered travel industry while underscoring the continued unpredictability and political tensions created by Covid-19. 

“The industry is very nervous, if you can be nervous when suffering from shellshock,” said Tom Jenkins, CEO of the European Tourism Association. “Bookings for 2020 had been excellent, and many bookings for the peak season of September-October remain on the books. These bookings are looking more hopeful than probable in the current environment.”

Still, industry officials noted that the EU will review its border policies every two weeks, meaning the ban could still be lifted before the peak summer and fall travel seasons are over.

“I would refer to it as a work in progress, and we are hopeful that decision will be reviewed soon,” said Nick Calio, CEO of trade group Airlines for America.

Calio said he believes some EU concerns could be ameliorated if the federal government were to begin temperature checks for airline passengers. Temperature checks, he said, were a subject of discussions between EU and U.S. officials as the EU developed the specifics of its border-reopening plan. 

Airlines for America has called on the TSA to conduct temperature screening at airport checkpoints. But TSA administrator David Pekoske on Tuesday said no decision had been made on that issue.

Jenkins said he believes the EU border opening decisions are being driven by public perceptions and opinion polls over logic.

“There is no doubt that the process of travel involves risk of transmission, particularly in such hubs as airports,” he said. “But international travel poses no greater risk than domestic travel.”

The EU decision reopens Europe’s 26-country Schengen Area to travelers from EU member states and 14 other countries: Algeria, Australia, Canada, Georgia, Japan, Montenegro, Morocco, New Zealand, Rwanda, Serbia, South Korea, Thailand, Tunisia and Uruguay.

The EU said the decision was based on science and infection rates in other countries.

Jenkins emphasized that the virus is everywhere, and for the EU to say it will only open to travelers coming from countries with lower infection rates than the EU “is a highly problematic proposal.”

“If you are only willing to deal with countries that have a lower infection rate than yourself, you are effectively saying that you will only allow travel to countries who ought to quarantine your nationals,” he said.

The New York Times first reported last week that the EU planned to exclude the U.S., Brazil and Russia from the lifting of its travel ban on July 1 because of soaring infection rates in those three countries. The U.S. Travel Association had called the news “incredibly disappointing and a step in the wrong direction as we seek to rebuild our global economy.”

Also commenting on the NYT report, ASTA CEO Zane Kerby said it was “a short-sighted decision that could have unintended long-term consequences.”

“Our travel advisors report extraordinary pent-up demand for travel,” he said. “The European travel market is vital to the business of travel advisors. With the no-sail order still in place, this proposed travel ban threatens to push our members’ businesses off a cliff.”

Tori Emerson Barnes, the U.S. Travel Association’s executive vice president of public affairs and policy, said the EU’s decision to exclude the U.S. “will have major negative implications for an economic recovery -- particularly if this ban results in cycles of retaliation, as is so often the case.”

But she did not make any mention of or call for the U.S. to lift its travel ban on Europeans, which has been in place since mid-March.  

Reciprocity is seen as key in border reopenings. China, for instance, is on the list of countries that will be able to resume traveling to Europe -- if it agrees to open its borders to Europeans.

Jenkins said the EU plan has also created rifts among EU members.

“There is considerable tension within Europe after this move,” he said, noting that many of the member countries in southern Europe “were open to receiving American visitors, but the general consensus was that this was not the right move to make.”

While EU members are not bound by the decision, Jenkins said, “It would be a brave nation to break this collective decision.”
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Robert Silk contributed to this report.

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