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Dilemmas over summer holidays may sound like a very first-world problem, but for Europe this year, it’s now become an existential question.

Europe’s tourism sector employs 22.6 million people, equivalent to 11.2 percent of total EU employment, and accounts for 9.5 percent of the bloc’s economy, according to the World Travel and Tourism Council. For Spain and Italy, the two countries worst-hit by the coronavirus pandemic in the EU, tourism’s contribution to the economy is even higher, at 14 percent and 13 percent, respectively.

The lockdowns and bans which have frozen inbound travel to Europe as well as intra-EU movement are hammering the tourism sector. The European Commission estimates the pandemic will halve the revenues of hotels and restaurants; travel agencies will lose up to 70 percent of their earnings, while cruise firms and airlines will lose up to 90 percent. Up to 50 million jobs are expected to be lost worldwide, 7 million of them in Europe.

The main problem is that no one knows when borders will reopen. The obvious danger of allowing a rush to the beaches for the summer tourist season is that it could suddenly rekindle infections. It was, after all, winter vacations that helped stoke the spread of the disease in the first place.

In Spain, Labor Minister Yolanda Díaz raised the hackles of the tourist sector by saying that leisure and cultural activities won’t be able to restart until the end of the year. In Germany, Foreign Minister Heiko Maas has warned that it would not be “responsible” to have a “normal vacation season this summer.”

“People have got to feel confident about traveling before they start traveling to Europe” — Tom Jenkins, chief executive of the European Tourism Association

Given this pervading uncertainty about travel abroad, there’s a lot of talk that staycations may be the most practical Plan B.

“We will develop domestic tourism. There are lots of places to discover. And why? Because some areas are more contaminated than others. You have to say it the way it is. They won’t reopen at the same speed as others,” France’s Thierry Breton, who is EU commissioner for the Internal Market, told France-TV.

Italy’s Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte said his tourism plans will be to tell Italians to “go on vacation in Italy,” local media reported. But for the moment, and even after May 4 when Italy will ease some restrictions, Italians aren’t even allowed to cross regional borders. France is reportedly considering a similar approach, limiting movement between regions — the government will announce the country’s exit plan on April 28.

While holidaying at home makes sense in wealthier countries with larger populations, the smaller countries are less convinced. Greece is considering making entry subject to a “health passport” that should indicate that travelers are either virus-free or no longer infectious, to allow for a shorter summer season from July onward. Portugal is also pinning its hopes on some international visitors. Austria is taking a bilateral approach: It will allow in tourists “if countries manage the situation well, like Germany,” said Tourism Minister Elisabeth Köstinger.

At a meeting on Monday, EU tourism ministers stressed the need for joined-up policy on matters such as refunds for package tours and liquidity for tour operators. They also discussed the potential for “tourist corridors” between member countries, involving oversight by epidemiologists.

‘Smart solutions’

Commission President Ursula von der Leyen initially advised against booking summer holidays, before saying that “smart solutions” would enable summer vacations, but gave little detail.

The Commission promised “more detailed guidance” on transport and holiday planning “as swiftly as the health situation allows it” in its exit roadmap in mid-April.

These guidelines, for which there isn’t yet a date, will aim to ensure that internal border controls are lifted “in a coordinated manner, once the border regions’ epidemiological situation converges sufficiently and social distancing rules are widely and responsibly applied,” an EU official said.

Restrictions should first be lifted between areas with comparable contagion rates, as monitored by the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control. Restoring mobility in the free-movement Schengen area, made up of 26 European countries, should be the priority and only subsequently could the current ban on extra-EU inbound travel be lifted, the EU official said.

But even once this happens, it’s uncertain whether tourism will resume quickly: “There has to be complete confidence in all origin markets for tourism to recover,” said Tom Jenkins, chief executive of the European Tourism Association.

Dutch police carry out checks at the Netherlands-Germany border | Marcel Van Hoorn/AFP via Getty Images

“People have got to feel confident about traveling before they start traveling to Europe,” Jenkins said. “And at the moment they’re not confident about leaving their front door.”

For now, just as they unilaterally and chaotically adopted travel restrictions, EU countries are lifting them in a piecemeal fashion.

Socially distanced summer

Even assuming Europeans will be allowed to travel within their country or across borders, summer vacations won’t look anything like we know them.

The need to maintain social distance to keep contagion rates from spiking and forcing a second wave of lockdowns means that restaurants, beaches and concert halls will work at a fraction of their capacity.

The Belgian seaside town of Ostend is studying how to allow access to the beach, possibly by introducing hourly passes.

In Italy’s southern region of Puglia, which in 2019 welcomed 4.2 million tourists, including 1.2 million foreigners, an epidemiologist is advising the local government on how to allow locals and tourists to enjoy the region’s crystal-blue sea without turning it into a contagion hot spot.

A windswept day on the beach in Ostend, Belgium | Laurent Dubrule/EPA

“It’s complicated. In Italy, socializing has such a strong, meaningful role,” said Pier Luigi Lopalco, a professor of hygiene at the University of Pisa.

“Social distancing is the most efficient measure to decrease the virus’ circulation. This means that obviously we will not be able to have crowded beaches like last summer,” he said. Similarly, restaurants, cinemas and theatres will be allowed to operate along the same principle of keeping a safe distance from others.

He hopes that people will use the chance to visit areas off the beaten track: “We have a paradox of having very crowded beaches and then we have beautiful rural areas that remain empty during the summer. Let’s try to increase opportunities, to distribute people throughout the territory.”

At the same time, to avoid importing new cases in a region which has so far managed to contain the contagion, incoming tourists should be tested before traveling to Puglia, “in their own interest and in the interest of the people they will visit,” Lopalco said.

Rethinking mass tourism

Tourism will be at the center of Europe’s recovery plan, according to Breton, who pledged to “keep Europe as the first destination in the world for tourism but also develop a new gold standard in terms of innovative, responsible and sustainable tourism.”

He’d like to earmark a fifth of the bloc’s recovery money, which he puts at 10 percent of Europe’s gross domestic product, for the sector. “The tourism ecosystem … which includes travel agencies, but also restaurants, airlines and cruises … must be by far the one that should benefit in the greatest number, certainly more than 20 percent,” he told the European Parliament.

Of Europe’s almost 3 million tourism businesses, 90 percent are small companies, often with a handful of employees and relying on seasonal workers.

“This crisis is very dramatic. We should learn from our mistakes and address the environmental and health challenges of this new century” — Karima Delli, Green MEP

“A significant part of the jobs are temporary, both the social and economic situation is very worrying. That is why swift and massive support is needed in the sector,” said Karima Delli, chair of the transport and tourism Committee and an MEP for the Greens.

Many governments are considering bailing out airlines, whose earnings have dried up as an effect of the lockdowns. For those arguing there’s no tourism without planes, it’s a wise choice.

“There will be fewer routes that will connect north to south Europe for holidays, and therefore tourism will suffer also from the scarcity of connections,” said Luca Patanè, president of Confturismo, the Italian tourism lobby and president of Blue Panorama Airlines, an Italian carrier. He thinks recovery should start from airlines.

“Planes cannot travel with a third of passengers, otherwise they would cost three or four times more tickets, and therefore the type of tourism we have seen in Europe so far would not be sustainable,” he said.

Grounded flights on the runway at Munich airport, Germany | Christof Stache/AFP via Getty Images

But the prospect of being grounded, while a bitter blow for many, is leading others to question our model of mass tourism.

“This crisis is very dramatic. We should learn from our mistakes and address the environmental and health challenges of this new century, to be able to provide citizens with attractive ways of traveling while preserving the planet,” said Delli.

“We cannot push the same paradigm; it’s not possible now.”

Paul Ames and Giorgio Leali contributed reporting.

This article was updated to clarify that France will announce its exit plan on April 28.

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