EU Opens The Door To American Travelers. But Be Sure To Read The Fine Print

Jun 18, 2021
Originally published on June 19, 2021 5:58 am

Americans are now able to visit the European Union again, vaccinated or not. The European Council has updated its list of countries whose citizens and residents should be allowed to travel freely to the bloc's 27 member nations, and the United States is finally on it.

But before you get on a plane, be aware there may be catches. In fact, there could be 27 different combinations of them. While the updated list published Friday is a recommendation on who may be granted entry based on their home country's health situation, each EU government makes its own border decisions. This includes what nationalities to admit, whether to require PCR or rapid antigen coronavirus tests upon arrival, and whether quarantine is mandatory. And while the European Commission, the EU executive branch, emphatically urges countries to coordinate such rules with their neighbors to ensure mobility, that plea has often fallen on deaf administrative ears.

And there's yet another factor EU governments may take into account when deciding whether to grant access to American travelers: reciprocity. The U.S. government has not yet lifted its ban on non-essential travel by Europeans. It's a touchy point. European Commission spokesman Adalbert Jahnz explained, "It goes without saying that we would expect the same from partner countries outside the EU for EU citizens traveling to those countries."

The U.S.-EU summit on Tuesday gave new hope for Europeans hoping to head west.

"We have received reassurances that this is a high-priority issue for the U.S. administration," Jahnz said, adding that a joint working group met Friday with the aim to "reinitiate safe and sustainable travel between the EU and the U.S."

Alberto Alemanno, a professor of EU law and policy at HEC business school in Paris, believes the U.S. hesitancy to open its borders to European tourists is largely due to a "negative perception of the EU's handling of the pandemic — notably, slow vaccination programs. In other words, Europe is not perceived as safe [yet]."

But Jahnz is optimistic this is changing. "The epidemiological situation in the EU is improving," he notes. "And we are, of course, putting in place a robust infrastructure to facilitate safe travel thanks to the 'EU digital COVID certificate,' " which is designed to ease cross-border recognition of testing or vaccination statuses.

"So we are hopeful," he added, "that we will find solutions that are workable for the U.S. as well."

Meanwhile, the European tourism sector is eagerly anticipating the return of its most profitable customers outside the EU. Last year was a "catastrophe," says Jeroen Roppe, spokesperson for Visit.Brussels, the tourist communications agency for the Belgian capital. Normally 80% of Brussels' visitors come from abroad, and many of those are from the U.S., Roppe explained. "We are very happy to see American tourists coming back to our city."

Eduardo Santander, executive director for the European Travel Commission, the umbrella organization for tourism agencies across the continent, is also optimistic, but said important questions remain.

"We think this is a great start, but we still have to read the small print," he said, urging would-be voyagers to do the same. "It's probably a couple of weeks until there is certainty about all the little things a traveler has to take into account before coming to Europe, and in particular, the issue of mobility within the European Union" if governments don't coordinate border regulations.

Santander warns that a lack of reciprocity for European travelers wishing to go to the U.S. could eventually be a problem for Americans as well, because airlines will need people going both directions to resume their flight routes. But he believes by mid-July things will be going smoothly, and that this year, high season for tourism could last well into the fall to meet pent-up demand.

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SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

The ban on Americans traveling to the European Union for nonessential reasons has been lifted. This means B.J. Leiderman, who writes our theme music, can travel to Malta. But as Teri Schultz reports, that doesn't mean an immediate return to carefree travel.

TERI SCHULTZ, BYLINE: Travelers from the U.S. are coveted customers in the European Union.

JEROEN ROPPE: It's one of the most important markets for us outside Europe. So we are very happy to welcome them.

SCHULTZ: Jeroen Roppe with the Visit Brussels tourism office notes 80% of visitors to the Belgian capital typically come from outside the country. So last year...

ROPPE: It was a catastrophe.

SCHULTZ: While U.S. travelers are now allowed in, each of the 27 member countries makes its own decisions about border control, tests, quarantine and so on. And while governments are heavily urged to coordinate with their neighbors, they often don't.

EDUARDO SANTANDER: We still have a couple of details to sort out, especially when it comes to multidestination travel.

SCHULTZ: Eduardo Santander, executive director of the European Travel Commission, representing national tourism organizations, says there's another concern the lack of a nationwide certificate proving vaccination status in the U.S. He says making sure this information is instantly verifiable is essential to keeping the virus out while letting voyagers in.

SANTANDER: We have done a lot of mistakes in the last two years, and we cannot have, like, another wave or something horrific, again, happening in the course of the summer because that will be the end of the travel and tourism industry.

SCHULTZ: One more bump in the road is reciprocity. The U.S. has not lifted its block on EU tourists.

ALBERTO ALEMANNO: I think it's due to negative perception of the European handling of the pandemic, notably the slow vaccination program.

SCHULTZ: EU law professor Alberto Alemanno says he expects this to be a temporary problem now with vaccination levels picking up in Europe. In addition, after Tuesday's summit with President Joe Biden, EU officials say they've been assured Washington intends to let European travelers in soon.

For NPR News, I'm Teri Schultz in Brussels. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.