Europe aims to revive tourism industry by allowing vaccinated travellers, widening 'safe' list of countries

Opinions remain deeply divided.
Opinions remain deeply divided.PHOTO: REUTERS

LONDON - Officials from European Union (EU) member states are meeting on Wednesday (May 5) to decide on the prospects of reviving their continent's tourism industry.

The discussion follows an initial proposal made by the European Commission, the EU's executive body, that restrictions on incoming tourists from countries outside the bloc should be progressively relaxed in time for the all-important summer tourism season.

But opinions remain deeply divided. Some countries whose economies rely on tourism want to see Chinese, Russians, British and Americans return in large numbers, while other nations advocate a more gradual opening of borders.

Ultimately, however, the Commission can only make proposals - member-states are free to do what they see fit.

Since March last year, the EU has been closed for non-essential travel, except for visitors from six countries: Australia, New Zealand, Rwanda, Singapore, South Korea and Thailand.

The selection was justified by an EU-wide rule which exempted only countries where the Covid- 19 infection rates over a rolling period of two weeks are less than 25 per 100,000 inhabitants.

The criteria were not automatic, since there are many other nations which qualify for the exemption based on current infection figures, but their citizens are still barred from coming to the EU for holidays on account of what European officials claim to be other "qualitative elements" such as the reliability of their statistical data.

The European Commission is now proposing to expand the list by opening the continent up to those nations where reported infection rates over a rolling two-week period stand at less than 100 per 100,000 inhabitants.

That is still very strict, considering that the current average EU infection rate stands at 420 per 100,000, and only one EU member-state - Finland - meets the standard which the EU is proposing to impose on others.

Still, the new proposed threshold will mean that British citizens (where infection rates are now at around 40 per 100,000 over a two-week period and falling rapidly) would be allowed into the EU as tourists, as would the citizens of Russia, provided the country's official statistics are deemed reliable.

That should satisfy Spain, Portugal and Greece which take the bulk of the British tourist trade, and island-state members of the EU such as Cyprus and Malta, which relyon Russian tourists for a good share of their income.

The snag is that the new proposed threshold still does not include the United States, where infection rates remain at around 250 per 100,000.

The revival of tourism trade with North America is considered critical, partly because American visitors can be big spenders, but also because European airlines also depend heavily on flights across the Atlantic.

A way around the US exclusion problem is to allow in people who have already been vaccinated, regardless of whether their country is on the "safe" list.

Largely to prepare the ground for this, the EU executive has suggested that tourists who can prove that they have received both doses of a relevant vaccine at least two weeks prior to their trip can be allowed to enter.

And, to make matters easier, the EU has suggested that the list of approved vaccines should not apply only to those authorised by the European Medicines Agency - which at this stage include those manufactured by Pfizer, Moderna, AstraZeneca and Johnson & Johnson - but also vaccines that "have completed the WHO registration process for emergency use", which would mean that two Chinese-manufactured vaccines could be included as well.

Southern EU member-states such as Greece or Portugal where tourism accounts for 10 to 20 percent of the national economy are predictably enthusiastic.

But other countries such as France or Germany, where local politicians are still reeling from domestic criticism about their handling of the pandemic, remain wary.

The result is that some countries are going their own way: Greece, for instance, has just announced that it is lifting travel restrictions on citizens of Israel.

To help create a consensus, the EU executive is proposing to review any border arrangement every two weeks, and to introduce an "emergency stop" which should allow the Union to reseal its borders should there be a major virus outbreak.

The EU is also hoping to revive tourism between its member-states to compensate for the loss of overseas visitors.

Its parliament approved at the end of last month the creation of an EU-wide Covid-19 certificate which could serve as a standard pass for people who have been vaccinated or tested negative for the virus to travel across the 27-nation bloc.

Unfortunately, however, this has also fallen foul of differing testing requirements in individual EU-states, as well as different border regulations.

And there is no agreement on the paperwork required. Europe's tourism industry is destined to remain hobbled.