The EU Commission has unveiled a package of guidelines and recommendations to help member states gradually lift travel restrictions and allow tourism businesses to reopen.

The hope is that there will be a unified response from member states. This is against a backdrop of some countries considering imposing 14-day quarantines, while others which earlier had imposed quarantines looking at relaxing them (Germany and Greece)

The Commission’s Tourism and Transport package includes suggestions on member states adopting “a common approach to restoring free movement and lifting restrictions at EU internal borders in a gradual and coordinated way.”

The advice is that as member states reduce the circulation of the virus, blanket restrictions to free movement should be replaced by more targeted measures.

If a generalised lifting of restrictions is not justified by the health situation, the Commission proposes a phased and coordinated approach that starts by lifting restrictions between areas or member states with sufficiently similar epidemiological situations.

The Commission says that the approach must also be flexible, including the possibility to reintroduce certain measures if the epidemiological situation requires.

The Commission suggest that member states should act on the basis of the following 3 criteria:

  • epidemiological, notably focusing on areas where situation is improving, based on guidance by the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control (ECDC) and using the regional map developed by the ECDC;
  • the ability to apply containment measures throughout the whole journey including at border crossings, including additional safeguards and measures where physical distancing may be difficult to ensure and
  • economic and social considerations, initially prioritising cross-border movement in key areas of activity and including personal reasons.

The principle of non-discrimination is also emphasised. The Commission says that “when a member state decides to allow travel into its territory or to specific regions and areas within its territory, it should do so in a non-discriminatory manner – allowing travel from all areas, regions or countries in the EU with similar epidemiological conditions.”

“In the same vein, any restrictions must be lifted without discrimination, to all EU citizens and to all residents of that Member State regardless of their nationality, and should be applied to all parts of the Union in a similar epidemiological situation.”

As far as transport is concerned, there are recommendations about social distancing and the use of face masks.

The recommendations are likely to be welcomed by the aviation industry, with the exception of that regarding refunds and travel vouchers.

There the Commission reminds travel providers that “Under EU rules, travellers have the right to choose between vouchers or cash reimbursement for cancelled transport tickets (plane, train, bus/coach, and ferries) or package travel.”

The Commission ‘reaffirms’ this right, but also suggests that “to ensure that vouchers become a viable and more attractive alternative to reimbursement for cancelled trips…the voluntary vouchers should be protected against insolvency of the issuer, with a minimum validity period of 12 months, and be refundable after at most one year, if not redeemed. They should also provide passengers sufficient flexibility, should allow the passengers to travel on the same route under the same service conditions or the travellers to book a package travel contract with the same type of services or of equivalent quality. They should also be transferable to another traveller.”

Alexandre de Juniac, CEO of IATA, the aviation industry body, in reply said that the EU  has “today issued vague recommendations that, quite frankly, are not helpful to airlines are consumers.”

“Under EU 261 Europe’s airlines will need to return around EUR9.2 billion for cancelled flights through the end of May.” de Juniac said. “EU 261 was not designed to deal with mass cancellations as have been necessitated by government-imposed lockdowns in the fight against a global pandemic. We asked for the flexibility to issue refundable vouchers—or delayed reimbursements—that would enable airlines to preserve some precious cash to survive the crisis and ensure consumers will get their funds.

De Juniac said that “Some 16 EU states representing 70 per cent of the EU’s population supported the request. Instead of an amendment to EU 261 that would give clear guidance…. This is not a request that we make lightly. And every traveler must be treated fairly and given what they are owed. With flexibility on EU 261 we can facilitate this and keep the sector viable during the crisis

“If the airlines run out of cash people will lose their jobs, airlines could fail and there would be negative fallout across the travel and tourism value chain. There is no public policy benefit in that. Airlines drive business and link economies. Re-starting economies with an even more hobbled air transport sector is akin to boxing in the fight of a lifetime with one hand tied behind your back.

“We call upon the EU Member States in the Council to ensure that a harmonized approach to reimbursements and vouchers during COVID-19 is achieved through a temporary and clearly drafted adjustment of the current passenger rights framework.

The full Commission document can be viewed here.