Have European Union restrictions on travelers from the U.S., Britain and some other major nations become politicized? The chief executive of Wizz Air, the Budapest-based low-cost airline, thinks so.
“I think the European Union as such has broken down completely," József Váradi told CNBC this week. "We have failed to come up with unified measures and an orchestrated approach dealing with the situation, and it has become incredibly overpoliticized.”
He’s not alone in expressing frustration. Michael O’Leary, the CEO of Ryanair, a rival Dublin-headquartered discount airline, has urged politicians to recognize “it’s time that we got on with our lives.” Ryanair last month posted the biggest annual loss in the company’s 35-year history, because of COVID-19 travel restrictions and lockdowns wiping out air traffic. This turned the company’s previous year’s $1.24 billion profit into a $990 million loss in the 12 months to March 31.
The EU decision Thursday to urge member states to maintain a prohibition on tourists and other nonessential travelers from the U.S. and Britain, among other non-EU countries, has left many in Europe’s commercial aviation and hospitality sectors fuming about what they view as the laggardly pace of easing travel restrictions for tourists.
Lack of uniformity
They say the European Commission is being overcautious, and they also are impatient with the lack of uniformity among member states about reopening their countries to tourists this Northern Hemisphere summer. Most national governments have been implementing the EC’s tight travel recommendations, but others in the past few weeks have not, further complicating journeys into the bloc from outside, especially for those unable to take direct flights to their destinations.
Some member states have also been imposing curbs on travel from other EU countries, turning the bloc and the once borderless Schengen Area into a complicated puzzle of rules and requirements.
Italy, Portugal and Greece, member states of the Schengen Area, and Croatia, an EU member, have all been ignoring Brussels and have been cautiously opening their tourist-dependent countries to travelers, including from the U.S. and Britain, which have vaccinated more of their populations than the EU. Italy started to ease travel restrictions on Americans and Britons in mid-May, although quarantines often still apply. Americans can travel on COVID-19-safe flights to Italy, which require multiple coronavirus tests.
American and British travelers are crucial for the European tourist industry. Americans made more than 36 million trips to Europe in 2019. The total number of tourist visits by U.K. residents to the European Union reached 67 million the same year.
EC keeps a list
The EC has a “white list” of countries with low infection rates comprising Australia, Israel, New Zealand, Rwanda, Singapore, South Korea and Thailand. Travelers from those countries, regardless of their reasons for journeys, are welcome, as far as the EC is concerned. Japan was added to the list at midweek. China also is on the white list, subject to reciprocity by the Chinese government.
The 27 EU member states have been debating for months ways to make travel easier, both within the bloc and from outside, and the EC has recommended all member states starting July 1 lift restrictions on travelers who were fully vaccinated at least 14 days before their arrival in the EU.
By July 1, the EU's Digital COVID-19 certificate is meant to be up and running across the bloc, allowing border authorities to verify the coronavirus status of travelers — whether they have been vaccinated, had a recent negative test or have proof of recovery from coronavirus infection. Seven countries, including tourist-dependent Greece and Croatia, already have started rolling out so-called vaccine passports much earlier than planned.
“Europeans should enjoy a safe and relaxing summer," European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said Monday. "As vaccination progresses, we propose to gradually ease travel measures in a coordinated way with our common tool: the EU Digital COVID Certificate.”
But some in Europe’s travel industry have doubts that everything will go smoothly next month, even when many restrictions are due to be eased. Olivier Jankovec, director-general of Airports Council International Europe, a trade association, worries there will be a lack of consistency in travel rules across the bloc and says the EC and national governments don’t understand how challenging reopening will be for airports and airlines. Jankovec says the EU and member states are underestimating what will happen when tourism does pick up.
Airport 'chaos' feared
“The level of both uncertainty and complexity in planning for the restart is just mind-blowing for now," Jankovec said in a statement. "With each passing day, the prospect of travelers enduring widespread chaos at airports this summer is becoming more real. We urgently need governments to step up planning on the full range of issues involved — and work more closely with airports and airlines.”
His trade association has warned that air passengers risk spending hours at airports in July and August because of multiple and diverse COVID-19 checks.
Some British lawmakers have expressed suspicions the EU has not added Britain to the white list because of post-Brexit political grievances. Last month, Brussels eased its COVID-19 cases per 100,000 people criteria from 25 to 75 and Britain meets the EU target. But EU officials say they are concerned about an increase in infections in Britain from a more transmissible coronavirus variant first discovered in India, hence the decision to exclude the U.K.
The Biden administration has not yet lifted a ban on travelers wishing to visit the United States from the 27 European Union member states and the United Kingdom, but officials have indicated that could soon change.
Meanwhile, Britain also has faced criticism from southern European countries for failing to include them on its meager “green list” of safe-for-travel countries. Portugal's foreign ministry said it couldn't “understand the logic” of Britain's midweek switch of Portugal from green to amber.
The move means any Britons who travel to Portugal will have to take two tests upon their return and self-isolate at home for 10 days, which will deter tourists. “Portugal is continuing its easing of its lockdown, prudently and gradually, with clear rules for the safety of those who reside here or visit us,” Portugal’s foreign ministry tweeted Thursday.
British officials, like their EU counterparts, say they are guided in their decision by the scientific advice they are receiving. The U.S. has not lifted its restrictions on travel from Europe for non-U.S. citizens or residents, but officials in Washington have told VOA that is under review.