EU takes big step toward relaxing travel for vaccinated

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Workers arrange sunbeds as others install umbrellas at Plaka beach on the Aegean island of Naxos, Greece, Wednesday, May 12, 2021. With debts piling up, southern European countries are racing to reopen their tourism services despite delays in rolling out a planned EU-wide travel pass. Greece Friday became the latest country to open up its vacation season as it dismantles lockdown restrictions and focuses its vaccination program on the islands. (AP Photo/Thanassis Stavrakis)

BRUSSELS (AP) — The European Union took a step toward relaxing travel rules for tourists from outside the 27-nation bloc Wednesday when EU ambassadors agreed on measures to allow in fully vaccinated visitors.

The ambassadors also agreed to ease the criteria needed for nations to be considered COVID-19 safe and from which all tourists can travel, depending on their coronavirus and vaccination status. Under the existing criteria, the list includes only seven nations.

The EU imposed restrictions on nonessential travel last year to slow the spread of the coronavirus. The bloc’s ambassadors said many of those restrictions should be eased, including to permit vacation travel by non-EU residents.

The European Council made up of EU nations “will now recommend that member states ease some of the current restrictions” for those who have been vaccinated, European Commission spokesperson Christian Wigand said. He didn’t give a precise date for when the borders will reopen since EU countries have yet to formally approve the measures.

“The council should also soon expand the list of non-EU countries with a good epidemiological situation from where travel is permitted,” said Wigand. The European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control is to give advice on the list.

The U.S. Travel Association praised the EU’s move and urged the U.S. government to adopt a similar approach to allowing international tourism to resume.

“The U.S. has been a leader in many aspects of managing the pandemic but is behind our global competitors in pursuing an international economic reopening,” Roger Dow, the trade group’s president and CEO, said. “The millions of travel-related U.S. jobs that were lost to the pandemic won’t come back on the strength of domestic travel alone, so identifying the path to restarting international visitation is essential to an overall economic recovery.”

The European Commission – the EU’s executive arm – proposed easing the rules for entering the bloc earlier this month, saying entry should be granted to individuals fully vaccinated with EU-authorized shots. Coronavirus vaccines authorized by the European Medicines Agency, the bloc’s drug regulator, include the ones made by Pfizer, Moderna, AstraZeneca and Johnson & Johnson.

The executive commission also proposed permitting EU member nations to decide individually whether to allow in travelers immunized with vaccines approved by the World Health Organization for emergency use, which include the Chinese Sinopharm vaccine.

Wigand said ambassadors also agreed on an “emergency brake” mechanism designed to stop dangerous virus variants from entering EU nations through quickly enacted travel limits if the infection situation deteriorates in a non-EU country.

Once the non-binding measures are approved, EU countries will keep the possibility to impose restrictive measures on tourists such as PCR tests or quarantines.

EU nations have been struggling throughout the pandemic to prop up their vital tourism industries and hope to recover some income over the peak summer season.

Greece, which is heavily reliant on tourism, has already lifted quarantine restrictions for the U.S., Britain, Israel, and other non-EU countries as negotiations between governments and EU lawmakers to introduce COVID-19 certificates aimed at facilitating travel across the region this summer continue. A deal is required by end of the month to ensure the system will be up and running by the end of June.

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David Koenig in Dallas contributed to this story.

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