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After more than a year of travel restrictions, U.S. travelers vaccinated against COVID-19 may soon be able to visit all 27 countries within the EU, a top European Commission official told The New York Times yesterday.
Throughout the course of the pandemic, the EU has been largely closed for nonessential travel (except to citizens from a select few countries with low COVID-19 case counts). If visitors were allowed in, they were often required to follow country-specific restrictions and protocols that included testing and/or quarantines. The announcement follows new Centers for Disease Control & Prevention (CDC) guidance released earlier this month on domestic travel, which says that fully vaccinated individuals are at low risk of catching or transmitting COVID-19 and could travel safely without quarantining or taking additional COVID-19 tests.
Ursula von der Leyen, president of the European Commission, credited the potential shift in travel policy to the U.S.’s quick distribution and use of three “European Medicines Agency-approved vaccines:” Moderna, Pfizer/BioNTech and Johnson & Johnson. Although she did not give a timeline for travel’s restart, it will largely be dependent on whether vaccination certificates (also called “vaccine passports”) can be introduced and used as acceptable proof of immunity — and whether the U.S. can keep up its current pace of vaccinations.
At the rate the U.S. is now vaccinating its residents, the country could likely reach herd immunity — with 70% of adults inoculated — by mid-June, meaning that U.S. travelers could visit the EU for leisure as early as this summer. Bryan Del Monte, president of The Aviation Agency and a former director at the U.S. Department of Defense, predicts that the U.S. will offer a vaccine verification process within the next several weeks, and that most travel bans will be lifted closer to September.
“Timelines will be tricky, because we don’t know what the infrastructure needs will be to substantiate vaccine verification,” Del Monte said. “Do we really need a high-tech solution on this, or is a paper ‘International Certificate of Vaccination or Prophylaxis’ sufficient, like we do for Yellow Fever? My presumption right now is — we’ll probably be on the paper system until it gets unmanageable, or we see some kind of massive spike in cases because there’s massive cheating, which I don’t think is likely.”
Timelines will be tricky, because we don’t know what the infrastructure needs will be to substantiate vaccine verification.
Zane Kerby, president and CEO of the American Society of Travel Advisors (ASTA), called the European Commission's announcement “welcome news at a time when Americans are planning overseas trips with their travel advisors.”
“We are gratified that the EU has recognized the economic importance of a viable international travel system,” Kerby said in a statement.
One such travel advisor is already seeing an increase in interest. Keri Forbringer Hetherman, a travel planner with Travel Experts’ Luxury Travel Works, said that she received requests for summer travel to Europe “as soon as the news came out.” An Instagram poll of 32 users reflected a positive business outlook as well, with 29 (91%) predicting that bookings to Europe will spike due to the announcement.
“One set of clients in particular are doctors who have set vacation times, so they knew they’d have a week in July and already booked plane tickets to Italy this morning, but want my help with the rest of the trip,” Hetherman said.
Kate Thomas of tour operator North and Leisure, which specializes in trips to Ireland and Scotland, said the announcement was "fantastic news all the way around."
"Americans are anxious to travel to Europe again, and all of my partners on the ground are looking forward to welcoming them," she said. "Personally, I'm excited to travel again myself and get back into the buzz of new business again."
Del Monte, on the other hand, said he was thrown by the news.
“I suspect the discussions have been happening since President Biden took office, but we haven’t seen an announcement from the U.S. State Department that we intend to do the same; probably largely driven by what I suspect is the lack of vaccination internationally,” he said. “With the U.S. agreeing to send its Astra-Zeneca supply to Europe, that will help get things rolling.”
Now, the ball is in the court of the U.S. government, Kerby said. ASTA is calling on the CDC to modify its rule regarding international air testing and to “continue work on systems to establish vaccination, immunity or a negative test result so that international travel can safely return to pre-pandemic levels.”
“Since the CDC has determined that fully vaccinated travelers are less likely to get and spread COVID-19, logic dictates that the rule requiring Americans returning from overseas to test negative for COVID-19 before boarding their return flight be revised to exempt those returning from the EU,” he said. “Doing so will help the travel industry make the most of this development while protecting public health and reducing the risk of Americans stranded overseas at their own expense.”
Paul Barry, CEO of Avanti Destinations, also reiterated the importance of introducing a viable vaccine passport system.
"We need, however, to hear both the firm date that American tourists will be allowed in, and the specific requirements and protocols for testing — both for entering and for returning to the U.S.," he said. "So far, with countries that currently allow U.S. travelers, multiple test requirements can be so overwhelming that they actually discourage tourism. The concept of a vaccine passport that eliminates most of the testing would greatly simplify the whole process. In some countries, a check-in is required for every open place for contact-tracing purposes. A vaccine passport would allow that to be the basis for contact tracing."
Since the CDC has determined that fully vaccinated travelers are less likely to get and spread COVID-19, logic dictates that the rule requiring Americans returning from overseas to test negative for COVID-19 before boarding their return flight be revised to exempt those returning from the EU.
Recently, the EU has been working on its own vaccine passport — the Digital Green Certificate — which would allow a cardholder to travel within the EU without added restrictions. The certificate states whether the traveler is vaccinated; if he/she has had (and recovered) from the virus recently; or has recently tested negative for the coronavirus.
This shift in policy may not mean restriction-free travel throughout Europe, however. Regardless of the European Commission’s final decision, member states may still opt to keep tighter restrictions within their own borders and will have the ability to mandate quarantines and other protocols even if a visitor holds a valid vaccine passport.