European countries will be advised to open borders to countries with similar coronavirus risk profiles under a plan to bolster the ailing tourist industry being discussed in Brussels.
On Wednesday the European commission will recommend a phased approach to reopening borders that means EU countries with “similar overall risk profiles” on the pandemic will open to tourists from each other’s countries, according to a leaked draft paper seen by the Guardian.
“Restrictions on travel should first be lifted in areas with a comparable epidemiological situation and where sufficient capabilities are in place in terms of hospitals, testing, surveillance and contact tracing capacities,” the paper said. The draft was first reported by the website Euractiv.
The EU executive has previously voiced unease about “tourism corridors”, whereby member states make bilateral deals to open to each other’s tourists, but now appears ready to accept such arrangements in practice.
The EU includes some of the countries worst hit by the pandemic – notably Spain and Italy – along with others such as Greece and the Czech Republic that have so far limited its impact.
Officials are scrambling to rescue Europe’s tourism industry, which accounts for 10% of EU economic output – more in Italy, Spain, Croatia and Greece.
Austria’s chancellor, Sebastian Kurz, announced last week that he intended to open the borders to visitors from safe countries, such as Germany and the Czech Republic, as part of efforts to protect the Alpine state’s tourism industry.
Estonia, Lithuania and Latvia will reopen their borders to each other from 15 May, creating a Baltic “travel bubble”.
“We showed a good example by stating, very clearly, that only countries which successfully dealt with the situation can open themselves up,” Lithuania’s prime minister, Saulius Skvernelis, has said.
Greece, among nine countries that have notched up low infection rates so far – and have formed the Smart Covid-19 management group – has proposed that tourism ministers also meet to discuss the idea of travel corridors among the alliance.
With around one million people – almost a quarter of its workforce – employed in the industry, Greece is keen to capitalise on its unexpectedly successful handling of the pandemic.
In proposals made ahead of the talks, Athens has suggested that travellers be tested for Covid-19 three days before departure. “Given that testing people upon arrival at airports will be difficult, the idea of so–called PCR tests being conducted to determine a person’s status, say 72 hours before travelling, has been discussed,” one insider told the Guardian.
Greece hopes the sector can be rebooted by 15 June with the nation opening to foreign tourists by 1 July.
The country’s tourism minister, Harry Theoharis, confirmed on Tuesday that if progress was not made on Wednesday Athens would pursue measures that would allow air travel by striking “bilateral agreements” with other countries. Germany, Austria, Israel and Cyprus have already begun discussing ‘travel corridors’ with Greece, along with Bulgaria and other Balkan states to its north.
Senior EU officials acknowledge they cannot stop governments from striking such bilateral or trilateral deals, but argue against selective treatment. If Austria opens to Germany, it would be expected to permit entry to all residents in Germany.
The commission’s acceptance of national border controls contrasts with earlier unease. “Member states cannot open borders for citizens from one EU country, but not from others. This is essential,” the EU home affairs commissioner, Ylva Johansson, told MEPs last week.
Separately, Boris Johnson and Emmanuel Macron have agreed to work on “appropriate border measures”. A UK government spokesperson neither confirmed nor denied a report by the Sun that the two leaders were planning a travel corridor aimed at allowing British tourists to visit France in the summer and vice versa. The spokesperson referred to Foreign Office advice against all non-essential travel worldwide.
The British government has exempted travellers from France from having to go into a 14-day quarantine that will apply to most international visitors.
A European commission spokesperson welcomed “all arrangements that bring us back to normality” but called on the British government to apply the same rules to other EU countries where the virus is under a similar level of control as France.
Quarantine restrictions on visitors are also determined by national governments, and the EU executive is taking a similar approach, calling for equal treatment for countries with a similar infection rate. “We would also expect member states that follow certain measures in quarantine would apply the same rules towards other member states if they have similar epidemiological situations,” the spokesperson said.
By the peak summer season, travellers across the EU will be able to check an interactive map drawn up by the European commission’s science service that will provide information on the latest border controls and travel conditions, under the commission plans.
The EU executive will also urge member states to construct preparedness plans in case of a second wave of coronavirus. It suggest countries should only lift travel restrictions when virus containment measures, such as physical distancing, can be followed throughout a journey.
Travel bans, grounded planes and closed borders caused by the pandemic response are proving disastrous for Europe’s tourism industry, which supports 27m jobs – 12% of all employment in the union.
In an interview with the Guardian and other European newspapers, the European commissioner for the economy, Paolo Gentiloni, said Europe’s tourism industry would lose 40% of its income in 2020. “It is obviously the hardest hit sector,” he said, predicting a gradual recovery after March’s total losses.
The commission will set out recommendations to promote hygiene in hotels and resorts on Wednesday. “We will have a tourism season in summer, but with safety measures and limitations that [will make it] quite different from previous summer seasons,” he said.
Gentiloni said countries faced different situations. His home country, one of the hardest hit by the virus, has already lost some of the biggest earning months of the year. “In Italy, for example, the peak season was lost, because the richest part of tourism is frequently the tourists going for cultural trips to cities, and this is specially done from March to May, and then in September to October.”
The United Nations World Tourism Organization predicted in March that global visitor numbers could fall by 20-30% in 2020, leading to losses of $450bn (£362bn), but the impact on Europe is expected to be greater. Around half of all the world’s tourists visit Europe.
The commission has pledged to prioritise tourism in an EU recovery plan that is still being prepared.
The commission is expected to say customers should retain the right to a cash refund, but will propose common rules for vouchers to make them as attractive as possible.