International travel is finally starting to recover from the COVID-19 slump.
As of August, demand for cross-border flights was still down about 69% relative to 2019 levels, according to the International Air Transport Association. But that marked a notable improvement from the prior month — the sixth straight, in fact. That’s despite a wave of COVID-19 linked to the delta variant that weighed on demand for domestic flights in both the U.S. and China. Cross-border travel restrictions are becoming increasingly manageable and coherent. That is, for the vaccinated, as I learned on a recent trip to France. And that’s a boon to both airlines and aerospace manufacturers.
The approach taken by the European Union, which has been open for international travel since June, is a blueprint for the world. The bloc’s member states can set their own entry requirements, and these vary depending on the traveler’s country of origin, but in general, people who are vaccinated don’t need much extra paperwork.
The U.S. has finally reciprocated: Beginning in November, the government will allow air travel by most vaccinated foreigners — including those from 33 previously banned countries — provided they can present a recent negative COVID-19 test. Unvaccinated international visitors will largely be turned away from here on out. Asia is moving at a slower pace but is showing signs of progress: Singapore’s quarantine period for visitors from certain countries has been shortened to 10 days from 14.
Despite this relaxation in rules, the perception persists that international travel is a logistical nightmare best avoided. I myself was prepared for the worst when I traveled in late September. It was my third attempt at rescheduling a 2020 vacation, and were it not for an expiring hotel credit, I might have stayed home. Even people who work in the aerospace industry were surprised to hear I would attempt a European sojourn. Would I even get into France and, if so, what would I be allowed to do there? But the experience turned out to be incredibly smooth and left me optimistic about the recovery in international travel.
To enter France as a vaccinated American, I simply needed to show proof of having received a full COVID-19 vaccine regimen approved by the EU and sign a health declaration form. That was it. No test, no quarantine. France requires a health pass to do just about anything, including check into a hotel, eat in a restaurant or go to a museum. It can be proof of vaccination, evidence of recovery from COVID-19 or negative results from a recent test. This was my biggest source of worry, because the EU uses a digital COVID certificate with a scannable QR code that’s more secure and verifiable than the cumbersome squares of paper issued by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
But France set up a system for foreigners to have their local vaccination certificates converted into a European pass. The process was clunky and a little frustrating, but it worked: I got my digital pass the day we departed. Health passes really are the ideal way to reopen international leisure travel. I felt perfectly comfortable doing normal, touristy things knowing everyone around me had been screened, too.
It was ultimately easier to travel to France than to return to the U.S. Even vaccinated Americans need a recent negative test. The new international protocols proposed by the U.S. introduce yet more headaches. Foreign visitors will have to provide phone numbers and e-mail addresses for contract tracing — even though the U.S. has no national contact-tracing system. New York City, San Francisco, New Orleans and other tourist destinations require proof of vaccination for indoor activities, but the U.S. hasn’t bothered to create an internationally compatible health pass. Are local proprietors prepared to check foreign vaccine records? Do they even know what those look like?
One thing is clear: People are willing to put up with an awful lot to visit far-flung corners of the world — particularly if they’ve been separated from their family or business contacts for a year and a half, or are in desperate need of a vacation. News of the more relaxed U.S. travel restrictions has sent demand for tickets soaring in Europe.
The doomsayers about the domestic travel recovery turned out to be wrong. Now, international travel is set to snap back faster than expected as well.
Brooke Sutherland is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering deals and industrial companies.
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.
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