Spring is traditionally a time of hope and renewal, and the news that Iceland has opened its borders to international travel and that Greece will do the same in May (travelers must have been vaccinated or have proof of Covid-19 antibodies) certainly fits the spirit of the season.
At the same time, though, worrying pandemic surges and slow vaccine rollouts on the Continent have caused various EU nations, including France, Germany and the Netherlands, to extend lockdowns and tighten restrictions.
With this in mind, is it too soon to dust off our passports for that long-delayed European vacation? I brought this up to a group of well-traveled friends, all of whom have been fully vaccinated, and the results of this small and highly unscientific survey were interesting.
Several of us felt that just because our vaccines will most likely protect us while we travel, the science is less clear on whether we could still transmit the virus to someone else. Therefore, we would feel constrained to use so much caution when around other people — masks, dining outdoors regardless of the weather, tiptoeing nervously through museums — that we might not enjoy ourselves. The prevailing sentiment was, “Hey, we waited this long. Can’t we hang on a little longer?”
Others of us, however, are already packing, at least metaphorically. One friend said that basic safety protocols like mask-wearing and crowd avoidance had practically become second nature at this point and that the early days of post-pandemic travel might offer something we Europhiles haven’t experienced in a long time — iconic streets and attractions free of teeming crowds.
“I want to visit Venice as soon as Italy reopens but before the crowds return,” she said — and I understood her point. I can remember traveling in Italy when tourists didn’t vastly outnumber locals in Venice, when you could stop in front of the Duomo in Florence without getting run over by a Segway and when you could gawk at the Sistine Chapel ceiling without fighting for your share of oxygen.
Similarly, central Amsterdam had become so crowded pre-pandemic with tourists riding bikes, taking selfies on clogged bridges and misbehaving in the red-light district that it bore little resemblance to the charming city it once was.
Elsewhere, throngs of visitors crowding the cafes of the Ile Saint-Louis in Paris, the bleached-white streets of Oia on Santorini, the medieval parapets of Dubrovnik and the once-serene Blue Lagoon near Reykjavik also posed problems for local tourism entities trying to balance the desire to be welcoming with the need to preserve their destinations and respect local residents.
A silver lining to these prolonged delays in international travel might be a concerted, mindful effort on the part of various destinations to rethink some of their tourism strategies.
Venice, for example, has finally taken the long-overdue step of banning cruise ships from its port in order to preserve the lagoon. Anyone who has stood calf-deep in water, known as acqua alta, in famed St. Mark’s Square and witnessed the shocking sight of flooding on the ancient floors of the Doge’s Palace can appreciate the significance of that.
And Amsterdam is weighing such controversial plans as moving the red-light district out of city center and banning the sale of marijuana to tourists in local coffee shops.
I suspect we are also seeing a corresponding shift in the mindset of travelers themselves, whose lives have been upended by the yearlong (and counting) quarantine in ways that we’ve only begun to process. It may be that authentic travel experiences, rather than Instagrammable moments, will become ascendant, along with a renewed respect for sustainability in all its forms.
When planning travel to Europe during Covid, stay on top of the shifting rules for each country by visiting the U.S. State Department website on international travel.