Americans who have been cooped up at home, dreaming of vacations, are excited to explore the world again armed with the inoculations that are rolling out here. But becoming fully vaccinated does not equate to a green light for international travel, given the varying speed of vaccinations across the world and a relatively slow rollout in Europe, long a magnet for Americans.
As of March 9, only 2.5% of the population in the European Union had been fully vaccinated against COVID-19, while 9.6% in the United States had, according to the Johns Hopkins Coronavirus Resource Center. Any American adult should be able to get vaccinated by the end of May, President Joe Biden told the nation recently. The E.U. timeline suggests that 70% of its adult population will be vaccinated by the end of summer.
Would-be pond hoppers are asking not only when we can go to Europe again, but another question that is just as vital but more mysterious: What can we expect when we get there?
In our imagined future vacations, we visit the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam, split our time between Florence and Rome, or stroll through the Jardin des Tuileries in Paris. But right now, the Netherlands, Italy and France are under nationwide curfews, the Rijksmuseum is closed, travel between regions in Italy is banned, and people must wear masks outdoors in Paris.
Not that the average American tourist would be welcomed in those places anyway. U.S. citizens — and most other foreigners — are still barred from travel to most of Europe.
The Re-open EU website currently lists only six countries, including Australia, Rwanda and Thailand, whose residents are able to travel to 26 out of the 27 E.U. member countries plus Iceland, Liechtenstein, Norway and Switzerland. (E.U. member Ireland is the exception.)
The list of countries with no travel restrictions launched in the summer with 14, but has shrunk as the COVID-19 situation has worsened. To be added to the list, the U.S. needs a reduction in the number of new cases and increased testing.
Reciprocity is another factor. Currently the U.S. has its own ban on vacationers from the Schengen Area (a zone encompassing much of Europe), the United Kingdom and Ireland. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's guidelines for fully vaccinated people, released March 8, suggest that inoculated people can gather in small groups, inside and without masks, but still should avoid unnecessary travel.
When this situation will change remains a mystery — and a source of consternation for the travel industry.
Already in Europe, 23 million jobs have been affected by the pandemic, according to the World Travel and Tourism Council, an industry group based in London. Tourism was forecast to bring in 218 billion U.S. dollars in 2020, until COVID-19 quashed that expectation, according to German-based consumer data company Statista. What quaint shops and family-run hotels will have taken a mortal hit from the ongoing disruption to tourism?
Though some intra-European travel has helped sustain the tourism infrastructure, many European countries have closed their borders even to European visitors in recent weeks in response to new variants that are more easily spread.
Still, some organizations and countries are starting to agitate for a loosening that could make for an economically healthy summer season.
Last month, the World Travel and Tourism Council encouraged E.U. tourism ministers to prepare for the upcoming season by unifying protocols — each country currently sets its own standards — and using testing rather than vaccinations as a marker for who can be let in. Countries that rely on tourism, including Greece, Portugal and Spain, have suggested easing travel restrictions with the use of vaccination certifications.
Meanwhile, U.S. citizens with a fresh negative COVID-19 test can travel to some European countries that are not part of the E.U., including Albania and Georgia. Ireland is accepting U.S. visitors who quarantine for 14 days.
Claire McCarroll, the head of Eastern and Southern Europe travel company Audley, said that people may be able to safely head to Europe as early as midsummer. Still, clients are warned that they may need to change dates. Among the countries McCarroll feels most optimistic about are Italy, the U.K. and Greece, but "the situation has continued to evolve during the course of the pandemic, keeping the travel industry on its toes."