July 28, 2020
Travel restrictions are back
Covid-19 cases are on the rise again and EU countries are reacting with more testing or with travel restrictions for travellers. The situation is not comparable to March, when Schengen countries had to close down their borders to contain an exponential spread no one was prepared for. Today, outbreaks are contained in certain areas, protection equipment and testing is more readily available, and hospitals are no longer operating at the brink of their capacities.
Covid-19 cases have been rising in Spain, France, Germany, Belgium, Switzerland and Poland. Particularly worrying is the situation in Bulgaria and Romania, with a surge in cases this month by 50% in Bulgaria and four-fold in Romania.
Countries differ in their reactions, imposing stricter testing rules or travel restrictions. The UK imposed 14-day self-isolation for anyone returning from Spain, after an outbreak in three Spanish locations. France restrained its response, and is only strongly advising against travel to Catalonia. But they require spot-testing at airports and ports for travellers arriving from 16 countries outside the EU, some of which already require testing before departure. Greece is also imposing stricter testing rules, and a negative test result is now required from anyone boarding a plane in Bulgaria or Romania.
The latest outbreaks in the summer season are hitting Spain particularly hard. This is a country where over 12% of GDP comes from tourism. But also holiday destinations in northern Greece are seeing a new wave of travel cancellations from Balkan countries. European travel agents and tour operators are protesting against what they consider a disproportionate response to local outbreaks that is detrimental to the tourism sector and consumer confidence. Spain has been a top destination for British holiday makers, and cancellations or abandoned travel plans mean severe financial fallout for tour operators and the local tourism industry. The back-and-forth with travel restrictions also may impact consumers behaviour in a more unconscious way. The memories of a cancelled or quarantined holiday this year may deter travellers from seeking another holiday in Spain next year, especially if one adds the complications of Brexit to the mix.
For the EU this re-emergence of travel restrictions will become another test in solidarity. Spain sees itself unfairly targeted, insisting it is a safe country that has procedures in place to contain outbreaks. EU countries other than the UK will have to tread carefully here, as they are likely to rely more on tests than on restrictions. But even tests can be seen as a targeted diplomatic incident. Germany is considering whether to impose mandatory rests on travellers from the West Balkans and Turkey. It is not hard to see how this can easily turn into a highly political game.