As the summer tourist season approaches and Western Europe’s Covid-19 crisis continues to subside, leaders across the continent are deciding whether and how to lift the border restrictions that they imposed amid a flurry of emergency measures in March. The European Commission has urged its members to coordinate their reopening, but a patchwork of strategies has emerged. Some countries — Italy and Germany among them — are reopening earlier and more widely. Others — like Switzerland, Denmark and the Baltic States — are proceeding more slowly, opting for “travel bubbles” or bespoke lists of countries whose citizens will be allowed entry.
Both approaches have drawn criticism. Bubbles or corridors risk creating confusion and could be seen as discriminatory, say some European observers. But opening up borders among countries where the epidemiological situations are vastly different risks triggering an increase in cases, a scenario that officials are determined to avoid. Indeed, all of the announced plans for reopening have come with an important caveat: If Covid-19 cases start to tick back up, then borders could again be forced to close.
“We need to be sure that a summer tourist season won’t come at the high price of a second wave of infections,” Heiko Maas, Germany’s foreign minister, said in May. “So there will be no ‘normal’ summer holiday this year. Whether the Baltic or the Mediterranean — the social distancing and hygiene rules will apply everywhere,” he said.
For American tourists, Europe will remain off limits this summer, with a few exceptions. Portugal is currently allowing entry to United States citizens without a quarantine requirement. Britain, the Republic of Ireland and Belarus are also open to U.S. citizens, but require a two-week quarantine. Americans and other non-European Union nationals may be able to visit Iceland from June 15, but all visitors will be subject to a Covid-19 test upon arrival. Other European nations remain closed to visitors coming from across the Atlantic.
Italy — which has Europe’s second-highest Covid-19 death toll, after Britain — has jumped ahead of its neighbors in welcoming back tourists, lifting border restrictions on visitors arriving from European countries as of June 3. The next major date in the continent’s reopening calendar will be June 15, when Germany and Belgium will allow entry to all E.U. nationals, as well as Britons and citizens of nations like Iceland, Norway and Switzerland that are within Europe but outside the E.U. Prime Minister Edouard Philippe of France has indicated that France will do the same, allowing quarantine-free travel for European visitors as of June 15. (However, starting on June 8, France will ask British visitors to complete a voluntary 14-day self-quarantine.)
The June 15 border openings will be like a “D-Day” for tourism in Europe, Italy’s foreign minister, Luigi Di Maio, told the Italian broadcaster RAI. He added that Germans account for a significant share of Italy’s visitors, especially for high-end travel. The tourism sector accounts for 13 percent of Italy’s gross domestic product.
“We must salvage what we can salvage from the summer to help our hoteliers and entrepreneurs,” Mr. Di Maio said.
Bubbles and bespoke lists
While Italy, Germany and France are planning to open up widely, other European nations are proceeding more cautiously, drawing up selective lists of countries from which travel will be allowed, or establishing “travel bubbles” along the lines of the one being considered by Australia and New Zealand.
Spain, one of the hardest-hit countries in Europe, is waiting until July to lift most of its travel restrictions. At that point, the country plans to open up to visitors arriving from a list of nations where the epidemic is under control, according to Manuel Muñiz, the Spanish government’s State Secretary for Global Spain. That list hasn’t been finalized, Mr. Muñiz said in an interview, but it will probably include most European nations, and could be expanded to a select group of countries from outside the region. (The country’s land borders with neighboring France and Portugal are due to reopen on June 22.) He added that Spain has asked the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control for specific guidance on how the country should draw up its list.
“When you talk to epidemiologists, what they tell you is that if you have these two containers with equivalent amount of Covid risk, it’s almost irrelevant if there are transfers of movement of people from one place to the other,” said Mr. Muñiz. He added that tourist destinations need to be able to do four things in order to welcome visitors safely: Track the virus’s spread; test anyone with symptoms; trace the contacts of those who test positive; and treat those who fall ill.
“When countries open needs to be fundamentally linked to how the disease is performing there, and whether those capabilities are in place,” Mr. Muñiz said.
Spain’s plan is just one example of a more tailored approach to reopening. On May 15, three Baltic States — Latvia, Estonia and Lithuania — began allowing free movement across their mutual borders, effectively establishing the first travel bubble in Europe. (Lithuania has since opened up to quarantine-free travel from 24 European nations, including France and Italy, but not Spain or Sweden.)
Hungary and Slovenia created their own bubble later in May, while Croatia has begun allowing entry to nationals of 10 European nations, including Germany and Austria, but not hard-hit France, Italy or Spain. On June 15, Switzerland plans to open its borders with Austria, Germany and France, but not Italy, its neighbor to the south. On the same date, Denmark will reopen to visitors from Germany, Norway and Iceland, but only for stays of six nights or more, none of which can be in Copenhagen.
Also on June 15, the Netherlands will begin allowing entry to nationals of 12 European nations, including Belgium, Germany and Italy, but not France, Spain or Britain.
Greece, where tourism accounts for nearly a quarter of the gross national product, is casting a broader net, extending its bubble to passport holders from a bespoke list of 29 nations. Many of those are in Europe, but the list also includes China, Japan, Israel, New Zealand and a handful of other countries where authorities deemed the health situation under control; the United States is not on the list. (Greece’s Civil Aviation Authority has since clarified that some arriving passengers may still be subject to quarantine requirements or mandatory Covid-19 testing.)
Portugal, however, is currently allowing flights from the United States, as well as Canada, Brazil and many European countries. Meanwhile, Britain remains open to visitors from anywhere in the world, although anyone arriving after June 8 will be required to self-quarantine for 14 days or risk a £1,000 ($1,240) fine. The Republic of Ireland also remains open, but with a two-week quarantine requirement.
This patchwork of reopening strategies is chaotic and will ultimately undermine European tourism, said Eduardo Santander, the executive director of the European Travel Commission, an association of national tourism organizations in Europe.
“I think that creating corridors, bubbles, bilateral agreements between countries only creates more confusion and frustration for the end consumer,” Mr. Santander said. He added that his organization has been lobbying for a harmonized return of travel and tourism across Europe.
“The information that is out there is so fragmented; it’s also so confusing,” he said, adding that freedom of movement is a pillar of European identity. “It’s not about cutting a deal with your neighboring country,” he added. “We cannot create these kind of competitive advantages and disadvantages.”
The European Commission, which has published a package of guidelines and recommendations on the resumption of travel and tourism in Europe, is building a website that will serve as a “one-stop shop” for anyone looking for the latest information on border restrictions within the bloc. A spokeswoman for the commission said that the site should be up and running by mid-June. In the meantime, she recommended that potential travelers check the government website of their desired destination to find the latest rules.
Waiting to see
In many European countries — especially those along the Mediterranean coast — renewing the flow of tourists will be critical to keeping national economies afloat. But it’s not yet clear how many people will be willing to cross a border for their summer vacations.
“We don’t have tourism anymore. Corona has taken it all,” said Marjan Dasic, the manager of Tarsa, a popular restaurant in Rijeka, a Croatian seaside city that was selected as one of Europe’s cultural capitals for 2020.
Normally, you would have to call at least a year in advance to reserve a table at the restaurant, which can seat up to 200 people and welcomes tourists from across Europe and beyond, Mr. Dasic said. The restaurant reopened in May after two months of closure, “but it’s like we didn’t open, because no one is coming,” Mr. Dasic said, adding that another month without customers will force the restaurant to close for good.
In France, the mountain resort of Chamonix is preparing for a quieter summer than usual. Major events like mountain races, climbing competitions and music festivals have been canceled, but the area’s trails will be open for hiking and mountain biking, and cable cars will be operating with new hygiene measures in place.
Claire Burnet, a spokeswoman for the Chamonix tourist office, predicted that tourists would come to the mountains to avoid the crowds one might find at the beach or in a city.
“We are pretty optimistic, especially for the French market,” Burnet said. “For the European market, we’re waiting to see.”
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By Paige McClanahan