The holiday season plans of millions of Europeans have been called into question by the Omicron variant which has dealt a blow to the winter sports industry across the continent
After months of general free movement for vaccinated adults, EU governments have unilaterally started imposing new entry requirements for travelers, even in the Union’s borderless travel zone.
France has taken the most radical step by banning tourist travel to and from the UK, which is battling a wave of Covid-19 infections fueled by Omicron, causing thousands of ski vacations to be canceled and trips to second homes around the country.
Several Eurostar trains from London to Paris sold out on Thursday and Friday as people rushed to travel before Saturday’s deadline. But hoteliers in the resort town of Morzine in the French Alps were inundated with cancellations after the announcement. Sara Burdon, communications manager at the Morzine tourist office, called it “worst timing”.
“Every UK booking we have from this Saturday is going to be canceled or has already been canceled, representing well over 50% of all Christmas and New Years bookings and over 60% of January bookings,” said she declared.
With half of the customers gone and no government support, Burdon said she expected the impact to be even more severe than last winter when the ski lifts were closed.
John Dredge, owner of More Mountain, a 350-person chalet business in Morzine, said “this week’s rule change could be the nail in the coffin.” All of her post-Christmas bookings have been canceled, equivalent to one-twelfth of the annual turnover of £ 2.5million. “Instinctive reactions happen week after week and affect us massively,” he said.
Jean-Baptiste Lemoyne, French Minister of Tourism, called on French citizens to intervene and fill the void. “About 15% of ski tourism in France comes from British travelers, so we did not take this decision lightly,” he told France Info radio on Friday. “I encourage French people who had not booked a ski holiday because availability was quite low before trying to book now out of solidarity.
The restrictions on British tourists have been “another blow” after two difficult years, said Niall Walsh, director of operations at Direct Ferries, a reservation service. Christmas was one of the busiest times on the Dover-Calais route.
Scientists believe the Omicron, identified in South Africa in November, is more transmissible than previous variants and more likely to escape the immune protection provided by vaccines or previous infection. At a summit in Brussels on Thursday, some EU leaders attacked unilateral actions they said undermined efforts to maintain a common system for Covid-era travel inside the union.
But they appear to be fighting a losing battle as politicians sought to protect their populations from infection and health systems from overload. Ursula von der Leyen, President of the European Commission, suggested PCR tests for all travelers from outside the EU in an attempt to preserve free movement in the Schengen area without borders. Several countries, including Italy, Portugal and Greece, now require people to take tests before arriving.
Filippo Taddei, senior European economist at Goldman Sachs, said the restrictions would present “challenges” for winter tourism. He estimated that an international travel ban on the industry would reduce growth in Italy and France by around 0.5 percentage points and Swiss growth by around 0.2 percentage point.
International visitors accounted for up to three-quarters of tourism to Austria’s Alpine region, about half to France, Italy and Switzerland, and about a quarter to Germany, according to Taddei.
But there were already signs that tighter domestic restrictions were dragging down demand at restaurants, hotels and bars in many parts of Europe.
IHS Markit said its monthly survey of eurozone purchasing managers found “a sharp drop in tourism and recreation activity on a scale similar to the declines seen at the start of the year amid the rise Covid-19 infection rates and associated restrictions in the region “. He said this helped lower new business inflows for eurozone service companies to the lowest level since May, when they rebounded from the latest round of lockdowns.
Italy, Greece and Portugal announced this week that even vaccinated visitors from the EU would be required to present a negative test result, joining Ireland. Greece’s similar measure takes effect from December 19 and will only apply during the Christmas period.
Kyriakos Mitsotakis, Greek Prime Minister, said he needed to “buy extra time to boost as many people as possible”. Businesses are concerned. “Travel changes and restrictions are the biggest issues we face in this phase of the pandemic,” said Yannis Retsos, head of the Greek Hotel Federation. “This has an impact on hotel bookings, even the limited number we have due to winter is in doubt.”
Switzerland, another popular ski destination, requires that all travelers, whether vaccinated or not, show a negative PCR result before entry and take additional tests on the fourth and seventh days of their stay.
Neighboring Austria, which has just emerged from a three-week nationwide lockdown, and other EU members such as Belgium and the Netherlands are demanding testing only for those not vaccinated.
Sweden imposed its first restrictions on travelers from its northern neighbors on Thursday, requiring proof of vaccination, previous infection or a negative test. Meanwhile, Finland introduced a requirement for travelers from the UK, Norway and Denmark to test themselves at the border. In addition, from Tuesday, all travelers outside the Schengen area will have to present a negative pre-departure test.
Additional reporting by Leila Abboud and Anna Gross in Paris, Martin Arnold in Frankfurt, Sam Jones in Zurich and Richard Milne in Oslo