BRUSSELS — In a rush of hope that Europe has turned the page on its pandemic ordeal, the European Union on Friday urged its member countries to open their doors to American leisure travelers, after more than a year of tight restrictions and economic slump.
Most countries are expected to open to Americans immediately — if they haven’t already — including Germany, France, Italy, Spain, Portugal and Greece, among others. For the tourism powerhouses of Europe, especially, the ruling offered long-awaited relief that they could begin recouping their economic losses from the pandemic as summer weather arrives.
“We have a lot of American guests and we actually stayed in touch with them over the pandemic,” said Richard Fischer, 37, a general manager at the Circus Hotel, in the heart of Berlin. “They are really looking forward to coming, and we are looking forward to having them!”
A recent rise of cases in Europe involving coronavirus variants prompted some caution about the E.U.’s move, and calls for continued vigilance. But after an early struggle to secure vaccines for many Europeans, the improvements in vaccination and case counts that allow the opening are crucial signals that the European bloc can still deliver for its members in times of trouble — a significant moment of cohesion in the wake of Britain’s exit from the union.
Friday’s decision was made by Europe’s economy ministers, who agreed to add the United States to a list of countries considered safe from an epidemiological point of view. That means that travelers from those countries should be free to enter the bloc even if they are not fully vaccinated, on the basis of a PCR test showing no active coronavirus infection.
But the European Union cannot compel member nations to open to American visitors. Each country is free to keep or impose more stringent restrictions, including obligations to quarantine upon arrival or to undergo a series of further tests.
The opening is also, so far, just one-way: Europeans are still barred from entering the United States for nonessential travel even if they have been fully vaccinated, following a sweeping travel ban announced by President Donald J. Trump in March 2020, and extended in January by President Biden.
Countries like Greece and Spain, more heavily dependent on tourism, already moved in recent weeks to reopen to tourists from outside the European Union, including from the United States. The European Commission, the bloc’s executive branch, criticized those early moves.
Anticipating the ruling, France on Wednesday began laying the groundwork for more visitors, saying it was ending a mandate on mask wearing outdoors and lifting a nighttime curfew. The result was a national sigh of relief that cafe life could fully return. On Thursday, France placed the United States and Canada in its “green” category of countries, opening the door for tourists.
But it has not been unbroken good news across Europe.
The Delta variant of the coronavirus is prompting serious concerns in some countries, including Britain, where a rise in cases from the variant prompted the country on Monday to delay by a month a much-anticipated reopening that had been heralded as “freedom day.”
Portugal reopened access to visitors coming from the United States on Tuesday, but that coincided with an uptick in infections and the highest daily number of new cases since March. On Friday, a weekend lockdown was announced in the region of the capital, Lisbon, to contain the rising caseload.
Last summer, more open travel between European countries was blamed for deadly surges in cases. But more than half of E.U. residents have now received at least one vaccine shot, creating better conditions for opening economies and restoring freer travel. Still, worries remain about opening up while highly contagious new variants are spreading.
“Bringing back travel between continents is a good thing, but it is not risk-free,” said Marc Van Ranst, one of Belgium’s top virologists and a government adviser. “Loosening travel restrictions during the summer period will inevitably lead to the spread of the Delta variant, also in countries where it is not established yet.”
Dr. Van Ranst said he did not expect a major surge in infections like the one last fall, but he insisted on the importance of a second vaccine dose to provide adequate protection.
Even as it begins this next phase of reopening, the European bloc has maintained a so-called emergency brake, a legal tool that allows it to quickly impose more restrictions.
For some southern European countries, badly needing an influx of tourism revenue, the decision to open to Americans could not wait. And many others said formal openings would come within a few days.
In April, Greece had already abolished the requirement to quarantine for all E.U. residents — as well as travelers from many third countries, including the United States and Britain — provided they had proof of vaccination, recovery from the disease or a negative Covid test.
Italy will open its doors beginning Monday to travelers from E.U. countries, the United States, Canada and Japan under similar parameters, its health authorities said. Germany announced that it would let in all Americans starting June 20, regardless of their vaccination status.
In spring 2020, to try to limit the spread of the coronavirus, the European Union largely blocked the arrival of external travelers. There were a few exceptions for nations that fulfilled specific criteria, including low infection rates, as well as more general conditions like the overall response to Covid-19 and the reciprocity of outside countries in welcoming European visitors.
By introducing these less precise requirements, the bloc gained more discretion in choosing which countries to include in the list. China fulfills the quantitative criteria, for instance, but the entry of Chinese travelers is conditional upon reciprocity. The reciprocity requirement seems to have been dropped in the case of the United States.
The European Commission said on Friday that it was “hopeful” that the United States would relax its travel ban soon.
Restrictive policies on movement on both sides of the Atlantic separated families and communities for months, caused billion-dollar losses to tourism and airline industries, and mostly stopped trans-Atlantic business travel.
Many Europeans living and working in the United States did not travel to Europe because once the U.S. ban was in place, they could be denied re-entry to America, said Célia Belin, a visiting foreign policy fellow in the Center on the United States and Europe at the Brookings Institution.
“My whole family is in France or Belgium,” said Ms. Belin, a French citizen living in Washington, D.C. “We have been completely isolated here. It has been heartbreaking.”
While leisure travel within the United States has nearly recovered to prepandemic levels, corporate and international travel — two moneymakers for the industry — still have far to go. For months, airlines have been pushing for authorities to ease travel restrictions between the U.S. and Europe, a particularly lucrative corridor.
“United is really excited about the E.U. gradually reopening for our customers and for world travelers,” Patrick Quayle, United’s vice president of international network and alliances, said this week in response to Portugal’s decision to welcome American tourists.
On Friday, Lufthansa Group, whose airlines include Lufthansa, Swiss, Austrian Airlines and Brussels Airlines, applauded Germany’s decision to loosen restrictions for Americans.
“The United States is Lufthansa Group’s most important market outside of our European home markets,” Frank Naeve, the company’s vice president of passenger sales in the Americas, said in a statement. “We are ready to meet the pent-up travel demand of Americans wanting to travel to Germany to experience a memorable European holiday or desperate to visit their family and friends that they weren’t able to see in person for the past 15 months.”
The lifting of travel restrictions between the world’s wealthiest countries with high vaccination rates further highlights the stark global inequalities when it comes to access to vaccines, experts say.
“Only 0.3 percent of Covid-19 vaccine doses administered globally have been in low-income countries,” said Dr. Thomas Kenyon, chief health officer at Project HOPE, a global health and relief organization, and former global health director at the Centers for Disease Control.
The further opening of the European Union comes as it works toward a July 1 goal for the widespread implementation of a Covid certificate system. Sixteen member countries started issuing and accepting the certificate at the beginning of June, ahead of schedule.
The economic pressure to reopen has hit individuals hard in many places.
Nadia Marchica, 53, works at a hotel in southern Paris that is only scheduled to reopen in September. But she said the return of American tourists would be “a beautiful thing.” She is one of many French workers who were put on paid furlough, and she now receives roughly 80 percent of her monthly salary.
“For hotels, for restaurants, for shops — because they love to buy everything that is French — it’s good for business,” she said of American tourists.
Not everyone was cheering. In many places, residents described finding a less hectic relationship with their cities without the usual rush of tourists.
Crescenzo Greco, 26, who lives in Milan, visited Rome on Wednesday to watch a game of the European soccer championship and on the following morning enjoyed walking around the quiet Piazza Navona, the Trevi Fountain and Villa Borghese without crossing buses carrying hordes of visitors.
“I have to say, without American tourists, Rome was even more beautiful,” he said.
But in Rome’s Trastevere neighborhood, restaurant owners were relieved to hear that Americans would be back.
“Thank God!” said Andrea Calderoni, the owner of the Il Ciak restaurant, decorated with pictures of Francis Ford Coppola and other American celebrities who have eaten there for decades, “The Americans are the ones who have the most fun here and do not spare expenses.”
Reporting was contributed by Christopher F. Schuetze from Berlin, Niki Kitsantonis from Athens, Raphael Minder from Madrid, Emma Bubola from Rome, Niraj Chokshi from San Diego, Aurelien Breeden from Paris, and Emma Bubola from Rome.
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