Confusion Mounts as Travel Restrictions Ease

The tourism sector faces a summer of uncertainly, as infection curves vary and the easing of travel restrictions remains largely uncoordinated.

As Austria attempts to return to normalcy, the challenge of reviving its hard-hit tourism sector looms large. While protecting populations from the pandemic required a national response, reopening will demand a common European effort, the European Commission emphasized in mid May. 

With every country affected by its neighbor’s policies, coordination is key. A number of possibilities exist to slowly reopen borders, such as travel arrangements between countries with similar infection rates, and the formation of travel bubbles, enabling free movement amongst participating countries. “The closing of borders is not a lasting solution” said Austrian Tourism Minister Elisabeth Köstinger (ÖVP) in a statement May 12, praising the Commission’s push for a coordinated easing of travel restrictions.

Germans wanted

Holidays will not be the same this summer, warned both Köstinger and the German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas. Uncertainty over border openings has many countries confronted with looming losses in tourism revenue, at the same time as the EU faces its largest recession to date.

In Austria, tourism accounts for nearly 9% of its GDP, bringing in roughly €60 billion in 2018, according to the latest WKO numbers, up to 15.4% as measured by Knoema, an international open-data initiative. With Austrian residents accounting for only one third of that, neighboring countries’ easing of travel restrictions is central to Austria’s prospects of reviving its tourism industry.

“Up-hill from here”

Nearly 40% of Austria’s tourists come from neighboring Germany. After Europe, Asia is Austria’s second largest source of tourists, with one in four guests coming arriving from the region, followed by the Americas at 15%. Despite the German Foreign Ministry opening borders with Switzerland, France and Austria on June 15, and dropping self-isolation requirements for visitors from within the Schengen Area and the UK, Austria is still hesitant to rely on foreign tourists. The federal government is even considering subsidizing domestic holidays by distributing vouchers for Austrian hotels, reported Der Standard on May 7.

Domestic tourism, however, creates a competition of its own among the Bundesländer.  Many of the nine federal states have launched targeted advertising campaigns, promoting themselves as the prime domestic holiday destination, while tentatively addressing people’s reservations: “Up-hill from here” (“Es geht Bergauf” – an optimistic expression in German) reads the Tyrolian slogan, while Upper Austria is saying simply, “Come on out” (“Komm raus”).

If Austria and other countries are to revive their tourism industries this summer, they will need a coordinated response, said Eduardo Santander, executive director of the European Travel Commission – otherwise they “risk creating competitive advantages” that could leave an unpleasant after taste. The lack of an EU-wide response not only creates confusion and uncertainty for people looking to book a summer vacation, but also allows them to cherry-pick destinations with fewer regulations, leading to the risk of potential spread of the virus back home.

KNOEMA: In 2018, contribution of travel and tourism to GDP (% of GDP) for Austria was 15.4 %. Though Austria contribution of travel and tourism to GDP (% of GDP) fluctuated substantially in recent years, it tended to decrease through 1999 – 2018 period ending at 15.4 % in 2018.

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Sophie Spiegelberger
Born in New York, raised in Moscow, Sophie now lives in Vienna where she is a freelance graphic designer, contributing writer at Forbes and director of communications for Democrats Abroad Austria.

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