The 2021 summer season has come to an end. It was long-awaited by all Europeans, whether it was to travel, take time off, or just enjoy dinner on a restaurant terrace. For the many small businesses in the tourism ecosystem, the summer season is always critical, but this summer was especially important in light of the devastating results in 2020.
Some tourism destinations, in particular coastal regions, witnessed a recovery close to pre-pandemic levels. Commercial flights to Greece were down only 7% in August compared to 2019. And Austria even reported a rise in overnight stays in August by 2% compared to 2019. Throughout the EU, the hotel sector reported an average increase of the revenue per hotel room by 68% compared to 2020 (still 32% lower than in 2019). Bookings picked up from mid-June, with 60% made less than 2 weeks before travelling against 30% in 2019.
How was this made possible? The EU ramped up vaccine production in spring in order to accelerate vaccination campaigns. By 9 July, 500 million vaccines were delivered to EU Member States – enough to fully vaccinate 70% of European adults.
In parallel, we launched the EU Digital COVID Certificate. In record time, the European Commission and Member States agreed on technical specifications and launched an EU interoperability infrastructure (the “EU Gateway”). The certificate entered into force across the EU on 1 July and 472 million certificates have been issued since. In addition, we took measures to support travellers, ranging from the Re-Open EU website to a new European Tourism Covid Safety Seal.
We still have a long way to go. Many tourism destinations continue to struggle, in particular those that rely on long-haul tourism or business travel. Hotel occupation rates in Paris remained 53% lower than in 2019. Some countries only received a fraction of their usual international arrivals: Ireland witnessed only 22% of international arrivals in July and August compared to the same months in 2019.
Moreover, the changing rules and inconsistencies between Member States are still affecting those sectors that require long-term planning, such as the cruise industry and trade fairs. And the uncertainties caused by the pandemic make it difficult for tourism businesses to hire and retain qualified staff.
So what to do next?
First of all, we need to continue our fight against the global pandemic. The EU has already exported more than 750 million vaccines around the world. It is also a major contributor to COVAX, the global system of vaccine distribution to low- and middle-income countries. On top of this, it has pledged to donate 450 million vaccines by mid-2022.
This requires us to further boost vaccine production, both domestically and globally. In July, I joined the launch of a new vaccine production site in Dakar, Senegal. This is part of Europe’s 1 billion euro investment in vaccine production capacity and access in Africa. And last week, I co-chaired the first meeting of the EU-U.S. Joint COVID Manufacturing and Supply Chain Taskforce at the White House in Washington DC in order to ensure smooth global supply chains for vaccines and therapeutics.
Second, we need to facilitate global tourism by taking a consistent and evidence-based approach to lifting travel restrictions, also for travellers from outside the EU. The Council of the EU has issued clear recommendations based on epidemiological criteria, but we still see inconsistent rules between Member States. I am well aware of the impact that this can have on travellers, whether it concerns a family visit, a student wanting to attend a scientific conference abroad, or a passenger on an international cruise ship. Further alignment between Member States is needed.
Here, we also count on reciprocity from other countries. I was pleased that during my recent visit to the White House, the United States announced that it will lift their restrictions on vaccinated travellers from the EU as of November – a commonsensical decision given the EU’s high vaccination rate. In the same logic, I also raised this issue with my counterparts in Japan and South Korea this week.
Third, we need to support the long-term recovery of the tourism ecosystem, while making it more green, digital and resilient. Earlier this year, I launched a joint effort among industry, public authorities, social partners, NGOs and other stakeholders to design a ‘transition pathway’ for tourism, to be used as a compass for the next decade.
Under the Recovery and Resilience Facility, the cornerstone of the EU’s recovery plan, EU Member States have allocated 11.6 billion euros to tourism-specific initiatives. Since 2020, the European Investment Fund has mobilised over 1.2 billion euros of financing to over 21.000 small and medium-sized companies in the accommodation and food services sector alone. Together with the many other sources of EU funding (as outlined in our EU funding guide), this will undoubtedly give this transition an extra boost.
The conclusion is clear: summer is over, yet our journey towards a full, sustainable recovery of European tourism is only getting started. It is time to kick it into high gear.