All set for a pandemic holiday?

23 March 2021

European cities that have felt the economic impact of a reduction in tourism during the pandemic are hoping that a common ‘vaccine passport’ could help kick-start a struggling industry.

Travel restrictions, local lockdown measures and quarantine requirements varying from country to country have meant that foreign visits between EU states have plummeted in the past year.

But on 17 March, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen presented a proposal to create a ‘Digital Green Certificate’ that would facilitate travel between EU countries with a QR code or physical certificate containing information on whether a person has been vaccinated, tested negative or has Covid antibodies.

The Commission hopes this common certificate – free of charge, multilingual and non-discriminatory – will be implemented before the summer to save the tourist season.

Short-term solution

In Prague, the Commission’s pass could be a short-term measure to help the city’s tourism economy get back on its feet. Despite a relatively light first wave in 2020 that coincided with a 16% increase in Czech domestic tourism during the summer holidays, the capital of one of Europe’s hardest-hit countries by the pandemic has seen a dramatic fall in tourism overall, with a 93% drop in the last quarter of the year.

“The tourism sector in Prague has been affected very badly indeed. We are looking for the ways how to get it back on track,” said Zdeněk Hřib, Mayor of Prague. “As significant amount of European citizens will be vaccinated by summer, it is desirable to find smart and fair solutions which would enable safe traveling, but at the same time would not put recovering of member states from the epidemic in jeopardy.”

The Commission’s proposal could therefore be a solution, but only if it is equitable, adds the mayor: “We support the idea that the Digital Green Certificate is available not only for people who have been vaccinated, but also for those with a negative PCR test and for those who have just recovered from Covid-19 and are still immune to the infection.”

The city has also launched many of its own initiatives to boost tourism. These include ‘Prague Unlocked’, a campaign to draw in domestic tourists and visitors from neighbouring countries that offers benefits for anyone who spends at least one night at one of the participating hotels in the city. The City Council has also called on the Czech national government to provide adequate financial support.

Backing from MEPs

Back in Brussels, MEPs have called for a strategy to kick-start tourism with a bigger focus on sustainability, but also safety.

Aside from calling for a new European Agency for Tourism, a report from the Committee on Tourism has backed the idea of a common vaccination certificate.

“With summer just around the corner, we want to avoid past errors and put in place uniform travel measures, such as an EU protocol for tests before departure, a vaccination certificate, and a European sanitary seal,” European Parliament Rapporteur Cláudia Monteiro de Aguiar (EPP, PT) told EU Reporter.

In Monteiro de Aguiar’s home country of Portugal, the pandemic has pushed the city of Porto into a “fragile” situation with regards to tourism.

Getting back on track

Porto hosted 13% of all of Portugal’s 25 million tourists pre-pandemic, but according to figures from the city’s department of tourism and commerce, the city saw a drop of more than 70% of guests and overnight stays last year compared to 2019. Up to 50% of businesses offering accommodation in the city’s historic centre have either closed or redirected their business to the rental market. All this has led to fears that many businesses catering to tourists may not reopen their doors.

“In some cases, some small accommodation units, small shops, restaurants and cafes have closed. Regarding tourist accommodation, Porto currently has 125 tourist development units with an active exploration licence. However, it does not mean that all units will open doors or return to their activity in the course of 2021,” said a spokesperson from Porto’s City Hall.

Porto has a comprehensive set of measures to mitigate the pandemic’s effect on the tourist sector. These include promoting accommodation that offers high safety and hygiene standards, financial support to historic stores, efforts to promote traditional commerce, the waiving of municipal fees for some tourism-focused trades and funds to help struggling businesses. But continued travel restrictions would considerably hamper these efforts to get tourism back on track.

In terms of vaccine passports, Porto is waiting for the national government to offer guidance. “The City Hall, like other municipalities, will adopt the guidelines of Portuguese Government on this matter,” the spokesperson said.

No quick fix

The Commission has stressed that the Digital Green Certificate is a temporary solution, but international bodies such as the World Health Organisation (WHO) and the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control (ECDC) have raised concerns with the idea.

“Considering that there is a limited availability of vaccines, preferential vaccination of travellers could result in inadequate supplies of vaccines for priority populations considered at high risk of severe Covid-19 disease,” warned the WHO in a position paper in February.

For now, increasing rates of Covid-19 infection in many European countries and varying levels of vaccination across the continent do not hold hope for a quick return to a normal tourist season.

Main image: © Lukas Souza, Unsplash