As COVID-19 ebbs, EU seeks to unlock borders for summer

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BRUSSELS (Reuters) – The European Union’s borders must reopen fast as coronavirus transmissions ease, with air passengers wearing masks, the bloc’s executive was to say on Wednesday in efforts to salvage the ravaged tourism sector for the lucrative summer season.

FILE PHOTO: A view shows the empty beach of the Promenade des Anglais in Nice during the outbreak of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) in France, May 7, 2020. REUTERS/Eric Gaillard

Europe’s museums, castles, beaches and plazas have been empty since an almost continent-wide lockdown from mid-March, but the EU wants to revive what is possible of travel for the June-August season worth 150 billion euros ($162.59 billion).

Draft proposals seen by Reuters say the bloc’s executive, the European Commission, will on Wednesday urge a return to “unrestricted free movement”, though that push will stop if there is a major second wave of infections.

It was not clear whether non-Europeans would be allowed to visit this summer, with the Commission saying: “Domestic and intra-EU tourism will prevail in the short-term.”

The pandemic has pulverised the global economy but hit travel particularly hard. The World Tourism Organisation expects losses of 280 to 420 billion euros for the industry this year, amid a 20%-30% reduction in international arrivals.

While the Commission can only make non-binding recommendations to governments that have control over their borders, Brussels did offer some specifics.

Airlines and airports must insist passengers wear masks, but there is no need to leave the middle seat empty on planes, the draft proposals said.

People should be able to stay in hotels, eat in restaurants or go to beaches safely, the draft added, though it cautioned that would change if there is a new wave of infections.

“Until a vaccine or treatment is available, the needs and benefits of travel and tourism need to be weighed against the risks of again facilitating the spread of the virus that may result in a resurgence of cases, possibly leading to a reintroduction of confinement measures,” the draft said.

“BALTIC BUBBLE”

Nearly all travel has been halted in Europe – a huge economic blow given the sector contributes almost one tenth of output.

Even within the “Schengen” area, where borders are normally invisible between 26 EU and other European countries, at least 17 nations have put emergency border controls in place.

The three Baltic states have already decided to reopen borders to each others’ citizens from May 15, creating a “travel bubble” within the EU.

Austria plans to reopen its border with Germany on June 15.

But elsewhere, there is great caution.

Tourism-dependent Spain and others are moving towards imposing a two-week quarantine period for travellers arriving from abroad, even as they ease strict lockdowns.

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The Commission estimates some 6.4 million jobs – more than half of the tourism workforce – could be lost.

The sector already suffered an 80-90% loss in turnover in the first quarter of 2020, four hospitality industry lobby groups said, and is braced for a disastrous summer season as the EU faces its deepest-ever recession.

Writing by Robin Emmott, Additional reporting by Kate Abnett, Philip Blenkinsop, Gabriela Baczynska; Editing by Andrew Cawthorne

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