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Pressure grows for Biden to ease pandemic travel bans

With Europe opening its borders to American tourists and vaccination rates increasing in the U.S., public health experts and travel industry groups are saying the time is right to restart international travel.

Secretary of State Antony Blinken has said that the U.S. is looking to the advice of medical experts on the best course of action, but that a group of American and European officials are working together on an agreement.

But critics say the administration needs to move faster, slamming travel bans as unrelated to the spread of COVID-19 and raising concern about the loss of revenue from international business travel, summer vacations and foreign students trying to arrive before the fall semester.

The administration’s travel bans are “frozen in time,” said Steve Shur, president of the Travel Technology Association, a trade organization that partners with online travel agents, airlines and hotels.

“We believe it’s possible now, at least for countries of low risk to start to reopen international travel” to the U.S., he said.

Travel into the U.S. from abroad is largely shut down, with exceptions for American citizens returning from abroad, family members of U.S. citizens and individuals with exempted groups such as international students.

The U.S.-entry bans target travelers from China, Iran, the European Union, the United Kingdom, Ireland, Brazil and South Africa. In April, President Biden banned travel from India as COVID-19 cases surged in the country.

But experts say picking and choosing countries based off of COVID-19 infections is arbitrary because the disease, including the spread of the more dangerous delta variant, is already entrenched in the U.S.

“It makes no sense, if you look at that list of countries, it’s completely nonsensical,” said Lawrence Gostin, director of the O’Neill Institute for National and Global Health Law at Georgetown Law.

“Even if you could accurately pick and choose, which you really can’t, by the time you’ve implemented the policy it’s changed,” he added, noting that by the time large outbreaks of COVID-19 rose to international attention in India or Brazil, travelers from these countries were already coming and going through the United States.

Gostin urged the administration to think more creatively about putting in place measures that allow international travel while also incorporating public health safety measures.

“The safest way for a traveler to come to the United States is to come fully vaccinated with an effective vaccine. I think using a vaccine passport system, and if somebody is not vaccinated then a very recent SARS-COV2 test result would be important, to make sure that the United States is safe,” he said.

“If we want to get anywhere near back to normal, we can’t live in a bubble. We’re going to have to start international travel, tourism and trade, as other countries recognize. But we want to do it safely.”

While the European Union opened its borders last month to American tourists, the U.S. has yet to make any announcements on a reciprocal decision.

“I can’t put a date on it,” Secretary Blinken said during a press conference alongside the French foreign minister in Paris on June 25. “I can tell you we’re working very actively on this right now, and we are – like France, like our other partners in Europe – both anxious and looking forward to restoring travel. But we have to be guided by the science. We have to be guided by medical expertise.”

The U.S. is the largest global travel and tourism market, according to data from the World Travel & Tourism Council (WTTC), with a $105 billion contribution to the domestic economy at stake if travel doesn’t resume.

While the U.S. has working groups with the E.U., Mexico, Canada and U.K. about safely reopening travel, hopes for a planned U.S. and U.K. travel corridor for the summer appear to be shelved amid the high rate of COVID-19 cases related to the Delta variant.

“The Biden administration is in no hurry . . . and the chances of anything happening before August now seem to be zilch,” a person familiar with the U.K. discussions told the Financial Times last week.

Advocates for the travel industry are deeply frustrated. Shur, of the Travel Technology Association, criticized the administration as moving too slowly.

“We’ve been urging the administration to at least put out a road map. I know they’ve formed some working groups to explore the topics, which we think is just way too late – it needs to happen sooner rather than later,” he said.

“It’s just a frustrating environment right now for the industry because the facts and the data suggest that inbound international travel is possible,” he said.

Rachel Banks, senior director for public policy and legislative strategy with NAFSA: Association of International Educators, said that while international students are not necessarily banned from entering the U.S., the State Department’s drawdown in consular services across the globe and inconsistent messaging have made it extremely difficult for students to receive their visas to enter the U.S.

She said it’s time to put in place more creative solutions to ensure international students arrive in the U.S. by as early as mid-August.

International students contributed up to $38.7 billion to the U.S. economy during the 2019 and 2020 academic year, a $1.8 billion drop from the previous year, with $1.2 billion of that directly related to the pandemic, according to NAFSA.

“Going through COVID, it seems like our competitor countries have got their footing in place faster with regard to welcoming international students and faculty back to their campus,” Banks said.

A State Department spokesperson said that the Bureau of Consular Affairs coordinates closely with the global network of EducationUSA international student advising centers to disseminate information to students and universities about the resumption of consular services abroad and enhanced flexibilities in government policies.

Students with valid visas in categories of F-1 and M-1 do not need to contact the embassy prior to traveling to the U.S. and can arrive 30 days before their studies.

“We continue to encourage both students and U.S. higher education institutions to maintain maximum flexibility in navigating the coming academic year, which includes accepting offers of admission and negotiating academic program start dates to accommodate variability in student arrivals on campus,” the spokesperson said.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention did not respond to requests for comment on efforts to open the U.S. for international travel.

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