Updated on July 1, 2020
Due to the coronavirus pandemic, the theme of my 2020 as been “cancelled trips.” And it seems that won’t be changing soon: As of July 1, the European Union is open to international travelers from certain approved countries…but the United States isn’t on the list. While Canadians, Aussies, Kiwis, Koreans, Moroccans, and many others can start planning a European trip — and good for them! — Americans like me will have to wait.
Nobody can predict exactly what the coming months will bring. The one thing we can count on is uncertainty. That said, I’ve been closely following the coronavirus news from across the Atlantic, and I’ve kept in touch with friends all over Europe. And as I look into my crystal ball, here are some informed hunches about what might — might — happen next. My goal is not to give definitive answers, but to provide a midyear snapshot of European travel in the age of coronavirus. (I updated this post on July 1, just as the EU’s reopening policy went into effect.)
Tourism in Europe Is Restarting…
Before July 1, tourism in Europe had already restarted, but it was mostly domestic: British urbanites on holiday in the Lake District, Slovenes hiking in their lush mountains, and Norwegians basking in the late-night sunshine on their dreamy fjords.
The next step is that, gradually, we’ll see the rise of intra-European tourism. Even though the EU has called for the reopening of internal borders, travel within Europe is still not “back to normal.” As the countries within Europe open up to each other, we can expect plenty to change over time, especially in response to isolated outbreaks. Quarantine requirements may be in place, and testing negative for COVID-19 and downloading contact tracing apps may become a bigger part of the picture, as well.
Travel within Europe has already come a long way. Reading accounts of crossing European borders from just over a month ago feels like time-traveling back to the Middle Ages, when Europe was a patchwork of feisty, independent city-states, each with its own borders, arbitrary regulations, and paranoid diplomacy. The first step has been for countries to waive quarantine requirements for trusted other countries — creating “air bridges” and “corridor trains” between two places with existing ties and low infection rates, while avoiding riskier stops in between. For example, a “corona corridor” connects the Czech Republic and Croatia, so Czechs can more easily enjoy their favorite summer beach destination, and Croatians can recoup some much-needed income during their peak travel time. Britain and Portugal have discussed similar options.
Of course, the news on all of this is changing rapidly; Google the details for a country you’re interested in, or check out the “Re-Open EU” site, operated by the European Union.
One silver lining of the pandemic is that formerly tourist-clogged cities are reveling in the lack of crowds. There’s far less demand for major sights — and, for the first time in perhaps decades, that demand is mostly local. Europeans — especially in notoriously “overtouristed” cities like Amsterdam, Barcelona, and Venice — are breathing easier and reclaiming their own spaces. And yet, they’re also aware of the importance of tourism in the local economy. My sense is that they’re looking forward to welcoming back visitors, but in the meantime, they’re making the most of having the place to themselves.
…But Americans Will Wait Our Turn
When hearing about European travel restarting, keep in mind this very important caveat: For now, it’s just for Europeans and residents of those approved countries (including Canadians) — Americans should not expect to easily enter Europe anytime soon.
Why? Because, by any reasonable assessment, the United States has done a rotten job of containing COVID-19. While certain cities and states have risen to the occasion, our haphazard and inept national response, reluctance (or inability) to increase testing and contact tracing, and mystifying tendency to confuse “personal freedom” with “public health protection” have put us embarrassingly far behind the European curve:
(And, just to clarify, this difference is not because of “more testing.”)
Through the lockdown of March and April, I was in steady contact with friends and colleagues all over Europe. What struck me the most was the rigidity of their quarantine. Most of them literally didn’t leave their homes — never even went outside — except for occasional runs for groceries or medicine, maybe once every two weeks. In much of Europe, the wearing of masks was embraced much earlier — and more enthusiastically — than in the US. (It’s becoming ever clearer that wearing masks is an easy and impactful weapon in the virus-fighting arsenal. Even many former mask critics now agree on this.) And by May, it became apparent that the US reopening strategy would prioritize economic recovery over human life.
Among European countries, Sweden famously took a more hands-off (read: “American”) approach, and stands alone among European countries in its high infection rates and lower-than-hoped-for immunity rates. (For this reason, Sweden also joins the US in being pointedly excluded from re-opening agreements with neighboring countries.)
As lockdown eases on both sides of the Atlantic, it’s becoming unmistakably clear that the European approach was more effective at containing the pandemic, while the American approach has left us highly vulnerable to further outbreaks. Talk of a “second wave” in the US is optimistic; we’re still riding the crest of the first wave.
For these reasons, Americans should be prepared to be treated as “second-class citizens” by the rest of the developed world, who might ask us to wait a little longer before we’re welcome for a visit. Frankly, we’ve earned that status. The EU has announced plans to re-evaluate their list of approved countries every two weeks. But the USA has a long way to go to reach the EU standard.
How European Travel Will Be Affected
That said, the time will come — eventually — for Americans to head back to Europe. If we can get a handle on our uncontrolled virus spread, that may happen sooner; otherwise, it could take a while.
The first wave of Americans visiting Europe will, most likely, be hale-and-hearty independent travelers — either people who’ve already recovered from the virus, or those who are simply willing to assume the risk. I would guess that, initially, any American going to Europe will both be tested and be required to quarantine for 14 days. Two weeks takes a big bite out of a person’s vacation, so I imagine the first Americans on the Continent will be on long-term trips. (And Americans should also be prepared for quarantine and other requirements when returning to the US.)
And what will travelers find on the ground in Europe? They’ll find conditions that are similar to the policies dictating the US reopening. As European museums have begun to open, new guidelines are taking shape: Expect strict limits on how many visitors can enter at any one time, with staggered entrance windows. Temperature checks will be common. Also, expect social distancing and the wearing of masks to be enforced in museums and other indoor areas. Europeans aren’t the slightest bit interested in your “personal freedom,” and won’t be shy about barring entry for non-mask-wearers. Bring a supply of masks, carry one with you at all times, and expect to use it. (If that’s a deal-breaker, stay home.) As far as social distancing, while “six feet” is the standard requirement in much of the US, parts of Europe are currently waging a heated debate about whether one meter (just over three feet) is far enough.
For a sense of what things might look like, CNN recently reported on the reopening of Paris — offering a glimpse at the many ripples the coronavirus has sent through one city.
American travelers will also want to bring plenty of hand sanitizer and disposable wipes (or a bottle of disinfectant spray and paper towels). Disinfecting your hotel room will become, for cautious travelers, part of the standard checking-in ritual — not to mention wiping down your seat on a plane or train, and anywhere else that you’re settling in.
When traveling within Europe, don’t expect effortless Schengen-era “open borders.” With the pandemic, many long-gone border posts were hastily re-erected. Many of these have been tentatively re-opened, but they could slam shut at the slightest hint of an outbreak. Travelers in the age of coronavirus will need to remain more flexible than ever, and keep a close eye on local news for late-breaking changes.
Organized tourism — including bus tours — will need to wait its turn. An independent traveler is better able to control their own environment: choosing to settle in for a longer period in a space that they can personally disinfect; buying groceries and cooking for themselves or picnicking to avoid potential virus exposure in restaurants; renting their own car to move around in a safe “bubble”; and so on. A cautious independent traveler could enjoy some — if not all — aspects of Europe with some confidence.
But bus tours require a large group of travelers being together: together on the bus; together for at least some meals; all staying in the same hotel and having breakfast in the same breakfast room; and even doing much of their organized sightseeing as a group. While a few impatient tour companies may try to rush back into the market, Rick Steves’ Europe Tours is determined to wait until we’re confident that the infrastructure for tourism is reliably back up and running. We expect lots of false starts and disappointing cancellations before things are humming along smoothly…and we’d rather wait for those kinks to get out of the system before we take chances with the travel dreams of our tour members. In fact, the same day the EU announced their travel ban, we cancelled all of our remaining 2020 tours. We’re hopeful to resume our tour program in 2021.
Of course, the game-changing variable in all of this is a vaccine. Experts are divided on how quickly a safe and effective vaccine may be developed, or whether it’s even possible. If and when a vaccine becomes widely available, I expect an immediate and huge rebound in all kinds of tourism to Europe. In other frightening times (for example, post-9/11), the pent-up desire for travel never went away — and, in fact, it seemed to build the longer people stayed home. While some travelers face financial difficulties that may prevent them from going back to Europe right away, those who have the means will make up for lost time.
The Future of Travel
I’ve heard it said that travel will “never be the same” after the coronavirus. That’s true: In the wake of COVID-19, the world, and travel, will emerge as something different. But that’s OK. We will adjust. And we may find that the new reality has advantages over the old one.
In the weeks after 9/11, hunkered-down Americans wondered if we’d ever travel in Europe the same way again. (I remember that panicked morning in Rick Steves’ Europe Travel Center — standing by to answer phones that never rang — and wondering whether planes would even fly again.)
Sure enough, things were different. Airport security on both sides of the Atlantic became more stringent forever. The world rallied around Americans, who enjoyed a particularly warm welcome wherever they went. And for several years, many travelers were in a heightened state of anxiety, imagining a terrorist bomb hidden on every plane or bus. And yet, we persevered. As we adapted to “our new reality,” we went on to forge travel memories as beautiful as anything that came before 9/11. We may still grumble about taking off our shoes in the TSA line. But we’ve gotten used to it…it hasn’t “ruined” travel.
Humans are remarkably resilient creatures. We adapt to whatever we encounter. Sometimes change is sudden and dramatic (such as 9/11 or COVID-19). And sometimes it’s so gradual we barely notice until it’s already happened (such as the rise of “overtourism” that peaked just before the coronavirus arrived). But good travelers always figure out how to make the most of current circumstances.
Going forward, small behaviors will be different, maybe forever: Travelers will carry little bottles of hand sanitizers, masks, and instant-read thermometers tucked into their day packs. Prebooking tickets for the great sights will be more important than ever — not so much because of crowds, but because of limits on how many people can go inside at one time. And we may never quite go back to greeting new friends with vigorous handshakes or European cheek kisses.
And there will also be more sweeping, philosophical changes. My hunch is that, having survived an acute global crisis, we may begin paying more attention to a slow-motion one: Traveling in a way that’s environmentally responsible and sustainable will become more important than ever.
I also suspect that the age of “overtourism” — and of superficial, Instagram-driven, bucket-list travel — has come to an end. Our civilization briefly arrived at a point where, for a few hundred dollars, we could step onto a plane and step out anywhere on earth. Travel was easy — effortless, even — which was a boon for those of us who love to experience our world. But maybe it was too easy. And perhaps we took it for granted.
When people venture out once again, I suspect, it won’t be to collect staged-and-artificial impressions of Europe, but to connect with it more deeply. I hope that one silver lining of the pandemic is that it inspires us to pursue a more thoughtful, more mindful type of travel: Visit fewer places. Linger longer. Pause to savor a sunset or the sound of church bells. Notice and appreciate the little joys of life in another country, instead of just ticking off items on a to-do list. Skip the museum to people-watch at the market. Really get to know Europeans on a personal level. Marvel at the wonders of Europe, and fully appreciate the privilege of being able to experience them in person again.
But in the meantime, look out for yourselves and your loved ones. Socially distance and wear a mask. Wash your hands and don’t touch your face. Elect trustworthy leaders, then trust them; failing that, listen to scientists and experts, and follow their advice. Do what it takes to earn the right to head back to Europe and be reunited with dear friends and favorite places.
I, for one, can’t wait.