Roam close to home: Europe’s tourists play safe in pandemic

Frank Jordans & Kerstin Sopke

BERLIN (AP) — Many a journey to far-flung corners of Europe starts in a dusty industrial yard in east Berlin, where Felix Rascher carefully tends to his small fleet of Volkswagen camper vans, a favourite among free-spirited travellers the world over.

But this spring, the pandemic threw a wrench in the works of the travel industry, as countries closed their borders and residents hunkered down to stop the spread of the coronavirus.

Hotels, airlines, travel agents, tour operators, restaurants, local guides and car rentals saw income evaporate as lockdowns came into force.

“Our business normally begins in mid-March,” Rascher, 37, said. “The Easter rentals collapsed completely, of course.”

According to Thierry Breton, the European Union’s internal market commissioner, some 27 million jobs across the European Union (EU) are directly or indirectly linked to tourism, accounting for 12 per cent of employment. Some three million businesses, most of them small companies like Rascher’s, benefit from Europe’s normally wide-open borders, helping make the continent the world’s top tourism destination with half of all global arrivals.

Tourists with backpacks and suitcases arrive at the port of Kloster on the Baltic island Hiddensee in Vitte, Germany. PHOTO: AP

Government aid packages have kept many businesses afloat, but mass unemployment in the tourism sector is likely once those funds run dry.

The dearth of tourists is particularly painful for some of the countries whose citizens and healthcare systems have suffered the most during the pandemic.

Spain, which gets 12 per cent of its GDP from tourism, recorded no hotel occupancies in April. Normally crowded travel hot spots such as Rome, Paris, Venice and Barcelona have at times appeared deserted in recent months.

Industry representatives are now pressing European governments to reopen borders in time for the summer vacation season.

Germany, with its 83 million inhabitants and generous annual holiday rules, will be crucial to the recovery of Europe’s tourism industry – especially while oversees visitors from China and the United States (US) remain locked out by travel bans.

German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas has indicated that if conditions are right, he would soon like to remove 31 European countries from a travel warning issued in March.

But Maas has also made clear that he doesn’t want to repeat the logistical nightmare of repatriating a quarter of a million Germans that were stranded abroad during the first wave of the outbreak in March.

As talks among European officials drag on, some countries are already vying for sun-starved travelers:

— Portugal said travellers arriving by plane won’t be quarantined, though there will be “minimal health controls” at airports.

— Greece, where 20 per cent of the economy is based on tourism, plans to start welcoming foreign visitors again starting June 15. The country says there will not be a required self-quarantine period, only random sample tests. Consumer tax cuts to lower the price of ferry, plane and bus tickets — as well as of coffee — will be offered during the tourist season.

— Cyprus is pledging to cover all costs for anyone testing positive for the coronavirus while on holiday in the east Mediterranean island nation. Tourism directly accounts for 13 per cent of Cyprus’ economy. The country expects to lose this year as much as 70 per cent of EUR2.6 billion in tourism-generated revenue.

— The mayor of Vienna will switch on the Austrian capital’s giant Ferris wheel to symbolise the restart of the tourism industry. Some resorts in Austria have already launched advertising campaigns in Germany offering special deals with the option of short-notice cancellations to reassure those anxious about booking trips.

Still, it’s unclear if travellers will take the bait. Concerned about a possible second wave of viral infections, many Germans have set their sights on vacation destinations closer to home. This week, officials along Germany’s chilly Baltic Coast rubbed their hands as the first gaggle of domestic tourists arrived for a taste of sea air.

“Some landlords are telling me they’ve never seen such demand as now, because it’s difficult to book anything abroad,” said Mayor of Prerow Rene Roloff.

The 130-year-old seaside resort with its 1,500 inhabitants depends almost entirely on tourism and normally has 1.2 million overnight stays each year.

Roloff said the surrounding county’s low number of COVID-19 cases was a selling point, adding that all businesses have been primed to enforce distancing rules.

“If people stick to them, then I think the risk of anything happen is very low here,” he said. Hotels in the region have had the number of rooms they can rent out capped at 60 per cent of normal capacity.

Head of Tourism in Prerow Lothar Jaeschke went further, “We expect that overall, if developments stay this way, it’s going to be a good season.”

Many hotels in northern Germany are already booked up for the Pentecost holiday weekend.

The mayor of Cuxhaven, a popular seaside resort two hours’ drive from Hamburg, is even pleading with day trippers to stay away and give space to locals and long-term guests.

Rascher said bookings for his VW camper vans are slowly beginning to pick up, too.

His clients, ranging from students to retirees and families with young children, normally have a bit of adventure in mind when they pick up one of the red or white vans, some of which have more than 500,000 kilometres on the odometre.

But with the risk of a second coronavirus wave and sudden lockdowns looming, Rascher said travellers might want to limit their horizons.

“When we get a request now, I always ask the guests to consider whether they’d be happy with a tour of Germany,” said Rascher. “I really see it as a chance to get to know the country better.”