Travel advisors reassure clients, but will EU guidance have chilling effect?

The U.S. travel trade was left scrambling to respond to the European Union’s decision last week to remove the U.S. from its “safe travel” list due to the recent rise in Covid cases.

Confusion ran rampant immediately following the announcement, which was not “legally binding,” according to the EU Council, with each EU member country left to decide whether to ramp up restrictions on U.S. inbound travel.

An online infographic shared by the council indicated that the EU continued to support travel by those who are fully vaccinated, suggesting that unvaccinated travelers would likely bear the brunt of any resulting policy changes.

Trafalgar CEO Gavin Tollman writes that this latest wave of Covid is unnecessary, and that makes him angry. 

An EU official told Travel Weekly that if member states are currently allowing in vaccinated travelers, they are able to opt to continue to do so. At the same time, members who are not requiring travelers to be vaccinated would be under no obligation to change their policy.

Jack Ezon, founder and managing partner of New York-based travel agency Embark Beyond, reported that many Europe-bound clients were concerned about the shift in guidance, and Embark was moving quickly in order to assuage their fears.

“Every article out there says, ‘it may prohibit [travel],’ and clients read this and then they’re in a panic,” said Ezon. “We need to get out there and say, ‘Yes, they moved us to the red list,’ but then explain what that means. “And in essence, it’s a suggestion.”

Italy enhanced its rules on the heels of the EU’s announcement: Travelers coming into Italy from the U.S., including those who are vaccinated, will need to obtain proof of a negative Covid test 72 hours prior to entry. Previously, fully vaccinated travelers did not need a test to enter. 

Travelers who cannot show proof of vaccine or Covid recovery must quarantine for five days and then take a test.
A number of Embark’s clients, and especially those with unvaccinated travel companions, were rushing to push their Europe travel dates forward in order to get into the region “before the doors close,” according to Ezon.

Phillip Archer, founder and chief experience designer at San Francisco-based Roaming Richly Travel, said he’s been inundated by client phone calls since the EU guidance change.

Travel Weekly has compiled entry information on countries that are open to U.S. visitors.

Last week, he put out an email to help mitigate client concerns, asserting that it would “seem extreme” for EU member states to fully ban inbound U.S. travel. A wave of “requirements for travel that better mitigate risk, like testing prior and during travel, even for those who are vaccinated” seemed far more likely, he wrote.

The infographic provided by the council on who should be allowed to travel into the EU essentially split their suggestions on inbound travelers into three categories: Fully vaccinated travelers who should still be allowed to travel to the bloc (including children too young to be vaccinated, provided they’ve had a negative Covid test), followed by “essential travelers” and then “nonessential travelers from countries on the EU list,” which applies to “all travelers” from that country.

The EU reviews its recommendations for the list every two weeks. Among the criteria for removing countries from the safe-travel list were that a country have no more than 75 new Covid cases per 100,000 people in the past 14 days. 

On Aug. 27, the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control reported that the U.S. had recorded approximately 600 new Covid cases per 100,000 for the two weeks ending Aug. 22. 

The EU official who spoke to Travel Weekly said that the purpose of the council’s recommendations was to try and align EU member policies as much as possible. But again, since it’s left up to each country to decide its policies, the situation for inbound travelers is as fluid as it’s ever been. 

World Travel & Tourism Council CEO Julia Simpson was critical of the EU’s recommendation, calling it “a step backwards.”

“Critically, we need a common set of rules that recognize global vaccines and remove the need to quarantine for people with a negative Covid result,” she said.

Tour operators have also had to proactively engage in customer outreach. Collette, which had already announced that it would require that all travelers on international tours be fully vaccinated starting Sept. 1, put out a statement assuring clients that the company’s EU itineraries would continue to operate.

“Our guests are fully vaccinated, and our team continues to do its due diligence in vetting every aspect of travel within the European Union, while adhering to necessary testing and guidance that has been set forth,” said Collette CEO Dan Sullivan Jr. in a release.

Tour company Walks, which is part of Hornblower Group’s City Experiences brand, has similarly stepped up its client communication efforts, keeping guests abreast of any changes and responding to questions via its blog and social media platforms, according to Walks president and founder Stephen Oddo.

“Our guests mostly have questions about the implications and want to know the latest travel guidance and requirements,  so far, we’ve not seen any increased cancellation rates or decreased booking rates,” said Oddo, describing Italy’s new arrival policy as “a very light change.”

Others in the travel space, however, are already feeling more significant impact from the EU’s announcement. Daniel Scher, a travel consultant with Strong Travel Services, a Dallas-based Virtuoso agency, said that the EU’s move has brought his European business “to a standstill.”

The EU’s announcement “will cause people that are on the ledge about traveling to reconsider,” added Scher.

Margie Hand, an Andavo Travel affiliate based in Birmingham, Ala., also worried about the level of uncertainty the EU’s guidance has spawned.

“I feel like many of my clients who were starting to make plans for European travel will now hold off until we know more about specific countries,” said Hand. “This does add another wrinkle for agents in an already difficult time.”

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