COVID-19 and international travel: Delta variant is killing travel in Europe, even with high vaccination rates

When the heavily-inoculated northern hemisphere began to almost miraculously open up to travel in recent months, its citizenry tended to, and still do, view the under-vaxxed and over-cautious Antipodes as the scared little weird guys of the western world.

But, hard as it is to report, there are increasingly disturbing signs from Europe that the much heralded rebooting of tourism may be proving something of a false Delta dawn.

Could it be that a tremulous Australia and New Zealand's combined border circumspection - accentuated by the fact that our zero sum game thinking is many months behind other high-income nations due to our slowcoach vaccine procurement - may yet prove the wiser stance?

As desperate as it has been for the tourism lucre to start flowing again across a strongly tourism-dependent continent, the European Union has this week removed the US, where COVID-19 case numbers and deaths are escalating again, from a safe travel list, recommending that COVID restrictions on American visitors be reinstated.

It's only two months since the EU rescinded most of its restrictions on US visitors and coincides with growing reports of even fully-vaccinated American tourists shying away from international travel.

And the difficulties aren't confined to the US, with the World Travel & Tourism Council representative body demanding that the British government end its controversial, confusing and complicated travel traffic light system, according to Travel Daily UK.

In the latest update to the UK system, only seven countries were added to the green light, safe to travel, list, while Thailand and Montenegro, both popular with sun-loving British tourists, were suddenly added to the red, no go, list, in an echo of last northern summer's chaos.

Dozens of British easyJet passengers from Montenegro are now facing 11 nights in hotel quarantine in the UK after the airline's planned "pre-red list" evacuation flight, designed to beat the status change, failed to depart, The Independent reports.

The Balkan republic of Montenegro was placed on the British government's red list at 4am on Monday, UK time, due to concerns over COVID rates. Arrivals after that time will be required to find the equivalent of about $A3771 to isolate in an airport hotel.


The situation underscores how complex the resumption of international travel is proving to be in the age of the diabolical Delta variant, as is evident in the case of Australia where its two biggest domestic tourism markets are out of action.

Certainly, Europe's experience will help inform how Australia approaches its own border reopenings. Let's not even contemplate the frightening consequences for tourism, and all else, if another even more contagious version of COVID emerges.

In order to make it on the EU's safe nations list, which is non-binding but influential, a country must have an infection rate of no higher than 75 new cases per 100,000 inhabitants over the previous fortnight according to a Time report. The US in the last week has been recording an average of more 152,000 new cases a day.

Even in the case of the US, any tourists who are or have been allowed to visit Europe are coming from an effectively depleted market.

In the early days of the pandemic, Americans were polled by The New York Times as to whether they would allow themselves to be inoculated should vaccines become a reality. Even with millions of cases, only about half said they would have the jab.

This thankfully seems to have been a bit low (with 72 per cent of Americans over the age of 12 having now received a first dose) but some states have much lower rates than the average and the unvaccinated are causing case numbers to surge.

"The hyper-transmissible Delta variant of the coronavirus has now forced some would-be [US] travellers to cancel trips and others to consider whether it's safe to follow through with their plans," declared a report in The Washington Post earlier this week. "As hospitalisations surge across much of the country - mostly among the unvaccinated - Americans are trying to adapt on the fly."

In The New York Times, in an article headed, "Blindsided Abroad: Vaccinated but Testing Positive on a Trip to Europe", American travellers report testing positive to costly COVID tests and ending up in quarantine at their own expense in countries such as Greece.

The Times points out that when Europe reopened its borders to the US in June, the Delta variant wasn't as contagious as it has proved itself to be with so-called "breakthrough infections" for the fully vaccinated more uncommon.

For Australians desperate to travel overseas again, and indeed return home, these are worrying signals. However, there is an optimistic note to be found amid the chaos. By the time we eventually reach the requisite 80 per cent of double-dosed Australians (if in fact we ever do) milestone for borders to be flung open, hopefully the likes of Europe, the UK and the US will have addressed their myriad challenges.

But whatever the eventual national vaccination rate, all indications are that there will almost certainly be no travel "freedom day" for Australians. Singapore is starting to look as good as it's going to get for overseas travel in the uncertain medium-term.

By the time that happens, millions of early vaccine-adopter Australians, including this one, will be due to organise a booster shot with the embattled tourism industry itself no doubt desperate for a shot in the arm, too.

Anthony Dennis is editor of Traveller in The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald.

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