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Confusion reigns as Europe reopens to vaccinated travelers

Though the EU's decision to reopen borders to vaccinated travelers is encouraging news for travel advisors and their clients, confusion reigns as they try to navigate different rules, regulations and procedures, all while waiting for more information.

"There is hope, but there is uncertainty," said Suzy Schreiner, owner of Azure Blue Vacations in Seattle. Schreiner said while some countries have announced opening dates, others have not. It's causing clients who were scheduled to visit Europe this summer to balk, especially as final payments loom.

"People are tired and worn out," she said. "They're tired of anticipation without anything coming to fruition. And agents are, too."

Rules across Europe are varied and confusing.

In Italy, for instance, major U.S. carriers earlier this month announced the country had opened its borders to all Americans who travel on so-called quarantine-free flights. These are flights that travel non-stop from U.S. hubs into Rome or Milan and on which all passengers must provide proof of a negative test within 72 hours of departure. They must be tested again on arrival.

But the Italian tourism ministry site has a questionnaire travelers can fill out to find out about entry requirements, and it still says U.S. travelers must be on essential travel or face a 10-day quarantine. Multiple media outlets, meanwhile, have reported the country has opened to all vaccinated travelers.

"If you are confused and frustrated, then you are following the situation," Tom Jenkins, CEO of the European Tourism Association, said of the region's border rules.

And while the EU has voted to open to vaccinated and pre-tested travelers, it has yet to release any details on what technology platform will be used to verify that information, or when that will take effect. And even when the plan is finalized, individual countries can still set their own rules, as they have throughout the pandemic.

Tourism-dependent countries like Greece, Spain, Croatia, Iceland, France and Italy, for instance, have moved to open on their own ahead of the EU. Others could delay reopening, even after the rules are finalized.

Jenkins applauded the European Commission for taking the stand to open the 27-country bloc's borders. But he said a perceived threat by the public of reopening, could keep some politicians who are eager to do the popular thing from standing up and saying the economic benefit of reopening "far, far outweighs any risk" from inbound travelers.

Janet McLaughlin, a travel advisor with Provident Travel in Cincinnati, plans to contribute to Italy's economy with a personal trip there starting July 11 to visit friends and family.

She has found the situation surrounding European travel to be "very, very, very fluid."

As of now, she plans to arrive in Rome via one of the quarantine-free flights. She will have to provide proof of a negative Covid-19 test taken at least 72 hours prior to departure, then fly from Cincinnati to Atlanta. In Atlanta, she will take a rapid Covid test before getting on the plane to Rome, where another test will await. She also plans to bring her vaccine card that shows she is fully vaccinated.

Most of McLaughlin's clients are planning European travel for later this year or early next.

"I think people want to dip their toes in a bit, see what's feasible," she said. "I personally think that September, October, November is going to be the time for most travelers to begin returning to Europe.

Florence Brethome, manager of leisure talent development at TravelStore in Los Angeles, has trips planned for clients this summer as well as in the fall, winter and in 2022. Those with summer travel plans -- mostly heading to Portugal, France, Italy and Greece -- are waffling, she said.

"We're still in this confusion mode right now," Brethome said. "Everybody is so excited that everything is opening up, but then the rules that are coming from the EU are very confusing."

That confusion is adding to the pressure agents are already feeling with high levels of demand after a year-plus of not booking travel, she added.

Ilene Koenig, an advisor with Let's Travel In Santa Monica, Calif., said she and her colleagues haven't heard much from clients about Europe. Instead, she is focusing on domestic trips and Hawaii, which is particularly popular. But she is monitoring the situation in Europe and encouraging clients to book now for the future, starting around September.

"The rules keep changing, and that's definitely causing confusion," Koenig said. "What's open? What's closed? Vaccination and/or testing requirements? Quarantine?"

Despite the current confusion, though, advisors are hopeful about the future, especially once more details come out of the EU.

"I anticipate [more new bookings] based on what happened with the theme parks -- when the theme parks opened up, I booked a ton of theme parks," Schreiner said. "When Mexico opened up, I booked a ton of Mexico. Cruise lines made these announcements, I've been working on cruise quotes and getting people booked. So, my anticipation is that once we have solid information about Europe, then we're going to see those actual bookings come to fruition."

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