The European Union has unveiled its plan to help citizens across its 27 nations salvage their summer holidays after months of coronavirus confinement in hopes of resurrecting Europe's battered tourism industry.
Around 150,000 people have died across Europe since the virus surfaced in northern Italy in February, but with the spread of the disease tapering off, people in many countries are cautiously venturing out of confinement to return to work and some schools are reopening.
A question on the minds of people, tour operators and the thousands of small businesses that depend on the tourism industry is whether the summer months this year will be reduced to a home-style "staycation".
We propose new guidance on how to safely resume travel and reboot Europe's tourism in 2020 and beyond.Tourism is vital to the Single Market as well as a key contributor to the EU's economic, social and cultural way of life.
— European Commission 🇪🇺 #UnitedAgainstCoronavirus (@EU_Commission) May 13, 2020
European Commission executive vice-president Margrethe Vestager told reporters: "This is not going to be a normal summer, not for any of us. But when we all work together, and we all do our part... then we don't have to face a summer stuck at home or a complete lost summer for the European tourist industry."
In a series of guidelines, the European Commission laid out its advice for lifting ID checks on hastily closed borders, helping to get airlines, ferries and buses running while ensuring the safety of passengers and crew, and preparing health measures for hotels to reassure clients.
But a big question remains: will the countries of the world's biggest trading bloc follow the advice?
Faced with a disease about which much is still unknown, national capitals have tended to go it alone, and they – not the commission – have the final say over health and security matters.
The commission's over-arching advice is that EU countries with similar rates of coronavirus infections and comparably strong health care systems should begin lifting border measures between each other. Tourists from outside Europe cannot enter until at least June 15.
The move comes amid deep concern that Europe's ID check-free travel zone – the 26-country Schengen Area – is being strangled by controls, further harming virus-ravaged economies by limiting the movement of goods, services and people that are essential to business.
On Wednesday, Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz announced that from Friday 15 there will only be random checks at the German border, and from June 15 the border will be opened again.
He said his government is looking to do the same with Switzerland, Liechtenstein and neighbouring countries in eastern Europe, "provided the infection numbers allow it".
Even with restrictions easing, social distancing rules would apply, and the EC is recommending that robust disease monitoring measures are put in place – including good testing capacity and contact tracing – so that people have the confidence to return to hotels and camping sites abroad.
With airlines and travel operators buckling under a liquidity crisis after governments ordered the cancellation and grounding of many flights and limits on public life, the commission is hoping for a greater use of air travel vouchers, which would be more flexible than tickets and could limit the need for refunds.
That would save time for consumers and spare airlines and operators the cost of refunds in some cases.
Vouchers would be protected against the company going bankrupt, and valid for at least a year, with trips remaining refundable if the vouchers are not redeemed. The vouchers would also be transferable to another traveller, under the guidelines.
Tourism-reliant Greece, which handled coronavirus better than most of its partners but whose economy had already been severely weakened by its debt crisis, has thrown its weight behind the commission plan, and is calling for the resumption of travel between EU countries by June 15.
It says prospective travellers should be tested three days before departure.
German foreign minister Heiko Mass said his country will lift a blanket warning against foreign travel for European destinations before other places, but did not specify when. Germany's warning against all non-essential tourist travel abroad runs until at least June 14.
"It will certainly be possible to lift the travel warning earlier for Europe than for other destinations – so long as the current positive trend in many countries solidifies," he said. "Freedom to travel is part of the foundation of the European project, but in times of corona, Europe must ensure more: the freedom to travel safely."
The border shutdowns have hit the travel industry hard. German-based tour and hotel operator Tui said on Wednesday that it expects to cut thousands of jobs due to the pandemic.
Tui said it was "prepared for a resumption" and its first hotels on the German coast would reopen in the coming days. It also sees the possibility of offering holidays in Spain's Balearic islands and in Greece starting in July, the German news agency dpa reported.
As long as new infections remain relatively low, there is "no reason why one shouldn't be able to travel there", chief executive Fritz Joussen said, but local companies and hotels need to be open.
Norway said on Wednesday it was opening its borders to people from other European countries who have a residence there or have family they want to visit.
Justice minister Monica Maeland said Norway, which is not an EU member, is opening up for EU citizens, seasons workers and people from the UK, Iceland and Liechtenstein.