The gradual return of tourism across the EU?

This week the European Commission announced that “the months to come should not be lost for the vibrant European tourism ecosystem”.  In support of this aim, the Commission published a tourism and transport package to assist “EU countries gradually lift travel restrictions, allow businesses to reopen and ensure that people in Europe can benefit from a safe and relaxing summer after months of confinement while respecting necessary health precautions.”

The Commission’s proposals can be broken down into three key elements:

  1. A common approach to lifting travel restrictions.
  2. A common framework to support the gradual re-establishment of transport.
  3. Common criteria and principles for gradually and safely restoring tourism activities/hospitality.

The Commission also published a recommendation on how to make travel vouchers an attractive alternative to cash refunds for airlines and package holiday providers in order to help them manage their cash flow.

Lifting travel restrictions

The Commission anticipates that a staged and coordinated approach is likely to be necessary and the initial focus will be on lifting restrictions between regions and Member States with sufficiently similar epidemiological situations.

The Commission has been keen to stress that the lifting of restrictions will need to be non-discriminatory. Where restrictions are lifted, the treatment should apply to all regions in Europe where the health situation is comparable.

The Commission’s proposal is made up of three phases:

  1. Phase 0 – this is the current situation, where restrictions are in place for non-essential travel.
  2. Phase 1 – this phase would see travel restrictions and border controls being gradually lifted throughout the EU, starting with regions, areas and Member States with a “positively evolving and sufficiently similar epidemiological situation”. This phase would see the return of travel for personal reasons and tourism in addition to professional travel.
  3. Phase 2 – during phase 2, all COVID-19 related restrictions and controls within the EU would be lifted, while keeping necessary health measures in place. Travel for all purposes would be permitted.

In order to support this proposal, the Commission has stated that it will continue to display the list of internal border controls in place at any given time on its website, as well as links to other relevant information for travellers.

Restoring transport services and connectivity

In its guidelines on the progressive restoration of transport services and connectivity, the Commission has recommended several measures to ensure the safety of individuals as transport services resume.

These include transport workers wearing PPE, lowering the capacity of services and passengers wearing face masks in transport hubs and vehicles used for collective transport (in line with applicable national rules).  With regards to reduced capacity services, the Commission has suggested that these could be supported to maintain their viability through, for example, temporary public service obligations in line with applicable EU rules.

The Commission has also endorsed the potential use of contact tracing apps by passengers – on a voluntary basis – to detect and interrupt infection chains and reduce the risk of further transmission.

Specifically as regards air transport, the Commission’s guidelines point to the forthcoming health and safety protocol that is being developed by the European Union Aviation Safety Agency (EASA) and European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control (ECDC).  This is expected to cover the strengthening of ventilation, limiting interaction on board and reducing movement in the cabin among other things.

Re-opening of the tourism and hospitality sectors

To help Member States, the Commission has issued guidance for the progressive resumption of tourism services and health protocols in hospitality establishments.

In relation to Member States deciding whether to relax restrictions to enable resumption of tourism activities, the Commission recommends careful consideration of whether the following criteria are met:

  1. COVID-19 incidence has declined to low levels.
  2. Sufficient health system capacity is in place.
  3. Robust surveillance and monitoring is in place.
  4. Testing capacity is in place.
  5. Contact tracing is in place.
  6. Coordination and communication mechanisms are in place.

The guidance also offers recommendations to the industry itself and includes considerations for staff as well as clients before, during and after their stays in hotels, visits to restaurants, coffee shops and bars for example.  Recommended measures include physical distancing and hygiene, respiratory etiquette and the use of facemasks.  Hotels are also advised to ensure that the contact details of guests are available in case they are needed for contact tracing.

Travel vouchers

The Commission has not gone as far as to amend any existing legislation and alter the rights of travellers to a full refund of cancelled flights or package holidays. However, it has now issued a recommendation on travel vouchers for passengers and travellers as an alternative to reimbursement.

Member States are invited to follow a joint approach, giving consumers an attractive and reliable choice between a cash refund or accepting a voucher instead. These vouchers would have key features to ensure that if offered instead of reimbursement they are reliable and attractive for consumers, including that they be covered by insolvency protection (such a regime to be set up at national level, either by the public or private sector) and that they be refundable if not redeemed.

What next?

While the Commission’s dedication to the travel and tourism sector is to be welcomed, it is clear that steps towards a return to normality will require a significant co-ordinated effort.  As acknowledged by the Commission, “for everything to work, there needs to be genuine cooperation across a number of policy frameworks and set of actors relevant for tourism:

Horizontally, between local, regional and national authorities and with the Commission.

Vertically between customs officials, transport providers, accommodation providers and all other actors in the ecosystem, in particular to operationalize, put the guidelines in practice an implement them.”

The Commission’s focus on digital technologies is also interesting.  In addition to contact tracing apps, the guidelines refer to the potential use of other technologies such as artificial intelligence (AI) and robotics to help monitoring physical distancing. The Commission has said it will deploy through Digital Innovation Hubs dedicated support for local tourism businesses to help them cope with the new realities of the tourism season (such as robots for disinfecting and cleaning, crowd management, smart booking systems etc.), including a dedicated hackathon on the use of digital technologies in tourism.

Finally, the co-ordination inherently necessary for the Commission’s proposals to succeed (and benefit the European industry as a whole) will become increasingly difficult for the UK. The UK exited the EU on 31 January, and is now approaching the end of the Implementation Period on 31 December 2020.  After that date, the UK will have to take its own independent position on how to support the travel and tourism sector, which, from what has been seen to date, seems unlikely to be more favourable than that seen from the Commission.