REVIEW - EU Trying To Balance Tourism Reboot With Coronavirus Safety

REVIEW - EU Trying to Balance Tourism Reboot With Coronavirus Safety

MOSCOW (UrduPoint News / Sputnik - 13th May, 2020) The issue of reviving tourism, the backbone of many European economies, is becoming increasingly acute as the summer is getting closer at hand and governments are grappling with the problem of how to reopen borders to tourists with cash while maintaining the coronavirus-related safety provisions.

Some European countries want to move faster than others. Many want to welcome tourists this summer and most need workers who commute to jobs across borders.

The way Europe ends up handling the challenge could offer a model for other continents and set the pace for the European Union's own economic recovery.

On May 7, Croatian Tourism Minister Gari Cappelli, who is currently holding the bloc's turning presidency for this sector, said there was a big interest in many countries in opening borders for tourists and that intensive talks on the matter were underway.

According to Cappelli, tourist agencies in the Croatian capital of Zagreb have received over 100,000 queries over the past few days from Italians who do not want to cancel their booked trips in August. He said the same was true for tourists from Slovenia, Austria and the Czech Republic, adding that there were no major cancellations in the months of July and August, unlike June where half of all bookings had been canceled.

Sputnik has spoken to several Belgian offices of TUI, the world's biggest tourism group, to find out the real game.

"We are closed and work from home. At the moment, it is still mainly cancellations that we have to do. Ticket refunds are outnumbering new flight bookings. The sector has an agreement with the government to offer value tickets for later, in place of reimbursing the trips. It is necessary for our cash levels," Chantal Vandemoortele from one of the offices in Brussels told Sputnik.

According to her, the agency had "a few" reservations for August and later, all "with a big question mark."

She said the agency had halted all reservations to Asia and the Americas, citing fears that such travel would become available again no later than next year.

"Customers are very supportive, but the whole structure of the travel organization will have to be adapted after the crisis," Vandemoortele said.

None of Europe's so-called sun belt countries is yet back to the pre-pandemic practices. Spain, Portugal, France and Italy still require a 14-day quarantine for all foreign arrivals, and it means two weeks of no going out, no shopping, no other traditional vacation activities.

COMMISSION AGREES TO OPEN 'TRAVEL CORRIDORS'

Contrary to its wishes, the European Commission decides little in that regard. Member states are jealously keeping their prerogatives and likely to manage things on a one-by-one basis, concluding bilateral green-light agreements with countries where the epidemiological situation is mild, while legally refusing entry from worse affected countries, such as the United Kingdom at the moment.

As an example of what is brewing in Europe, last week Croatian Tourism Minister Cappelli proposed establishing a joint travel protocol at the EU level, with mutually harmonized regulations, while letting individual countries make their own bilateral arrangements.

This proposal ended up adopted by the European Commission this week. On Wednesday, the commission issued a package of guidelines and recommendations to EU member states on how to reopen borders and relaunch tourism after months of lockdown.

In the five documents and four structural standards that the package contains, the commission advised that member states open borders to countries with similar coronavirus risk profiles, including with regard to the number of hospitals, testing capacity and compliance efficiency.

"Free movement and cross-border travel are key to tourism. As Member States manage to reduce the circulation of the virus, blanket restrictions to free movement should be replaced by more targeted measures. If a generalised lifting of restrictions is not justified by the health situation, the Commission proposes a phased and coordinated approach that starts by lifting restrictions between areas or Member States with sufficiently similar epidemiological situations," the guidelines read.

The commission called these arrangements "non-discriminatory," but they practically have established "tourism corridors" that the bloc's leadership has long resisted.

Many countries have already gone forward with arranging for similar policies long before the European Commission backtracked.

The three Baltic states Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania seized the opportunity to announce mutual opening of borders effective Friday, May 15, last week.

On May 9, Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz opened the country's borders for entries from "virtuous" countries, such as neighboring Germany and the Czech Republic, pursuing to revive tourism.

Greece is one of the surprise "good pupils" in the class, for its fight against the virus and its resilience have been remarkable. Greece has formed an alliance with eight other well-performing countries and their tourism ministers are now the establishment of mutual travel corridors.

"The 'corridors' measure is probably the most practical for the coming months where countries such as Poland or Germany, where the disease is under control, can go to Greece. But it is also practical for countries which did not fare so well; Belgium or France can go to Spain or Italy and vice versa, for example. They are at comparable levels in the evolution of the disease," Dimitrios Buhalis, Professor of Management at the University of Bournemouth in the United Kingdom and head of an eTourism research lab, told Sputnik.

He said there were three stages of this evolution: first, the emergency, which is now, when the virus is spreading or slowly receding, then the medical phase when hospitals are not overwhelmed anymore and patients can get better treatment, and finally the period when vaccines become available.

According to Buhalis, the third stage should not be expected to come earlier than next year and in this regard, even if travel corridors open up, tourists will still be required to take precautions, for example, not to move too far from their resort or hotel.

In absence of universally accepted compliance mechanisms, Buhalis said he expected a period of "trial and error" in opening up such corridors.

"Holiday destination countries are also looking at the type of tourists they get and will probably apply differentiated rules in different locations," he continued, clarifying that controls are most likely to differ in destinations such as the Spanish island of Ibiza, where young people come to enjoy clubs and night life, and a quiet resort for retired couples.

Despite this possibilities, Buhalis still sounded pessimistic about the outlook of the European tourism in the summer 2020 and even more so about the travel to Asia and the Americas.

"I am predicting that there will be no charter flights this summer. Tour operators will remain completely out. They need a period of two months of preparation, and a level of certainty about the travel they organize. Their margins are low: uncertainty increases the level of risk. Moreover, the insurance companies will only propose expensive coverage. So, tour operators will remain closed this summer, I am afraid, with potential huge bankruptcies, in the UK and everywhere," he said.

Sputnik has spoken to European Travel Agents' and Tour Operators' Association (ECTAA) in Brussels to find out their stance on the Commission's new travel recommendations.

"We are very careful in our recommendations to the sector. The sanitary situation can be very different from country to country," ECTAA Secretary General Eric Dresin told Sputnik.

He commended the introduction of travel corridors and of "health passports" where the epidemiological situation of the emitting country is evaluated, but said there were risks attached.

"Nobody in our sector has ever lived such a crisis on such a scale. We run the risk in Europe of seeing a big cacophony, without any real standardization at European level and no coordination, which would make the work of travel agents very difficult, especially if rules and measures change with the evolution of the pandemic," he said.

According to Dresin, the first thing that the European countries should now do to revive tourism is to end arbitrary quarantines and provided each other with official epidemiological reports.

"This summer, many Europeans will travel in their own country and won't try to cross borders, but if things go well in the coming 2-3 weeks, the tourism sector could be at half capacity for the beginning of July, from the plane travels to hotels, restaurants, small events, museums and even beaches, with all measures of distancing applied," he said.

On behalf of the ECTAA, Dresen also welcomed the support by European tourism ministries of a "swift and effective recovery of the tourism sector."

Greece, for example, has proposed that travelers get tested for COVID-19 three days prior to departure, to serve as a sort of health visa to board the plane.

But planes are anchored all across Europe. Low cost companies, such as Ryan Air, EasyJet or TUI, simply do not fly, as the maintenance cost of a plane on the tarmac is 30 percent of the maintenance cost when it is flying. Even larger airlines have decried the crisis, with many of potent flag carrier now being on the brink of bankruptcy and consuming meaty subsidies from their governments.