Insight: “Commission Package for recovery of the tourism and transport sectors” by Dolores Utrilla
Today, the European Commission presented a tourism and transport package consisting of a set of guidelines and recommendations regarding the recovery of these sectors and the gradual lift of restrictions imposed in response to the COVID-19 outbreak. This guidance follows the pathway set by the Joint European Roadmap presented on 15 April by the Commission in cooperation with the European Council to phase-out the containment measures adopted in response to the coronavirus outbreak.
Ahead of the summer season, the package adopted by the Commission implies a crucial step towards recovery in the tourism and travel sectors, which are vital to the internal market and its four freedoms, as well and as to the EU’s economic, social and cultural way of life. These sectors contribute to almost 10% of EU GDP and provide a key source of employment and income in numerous European regions.
This soft-law package is a further example of the massive use of steering instruments by the EU institutions in the context of the ongoing crisis with the purpose of rapidly supporting and coordinating Member States action, while leaving them a wide margin of manoeuvre and avoiding conflicts regarding further shifts of competences to the EU level.
The package includes five different guidance documents with non-binding indications for public authorities, economic operators, personnel and passengers. Subject to the epidemiological situation and the capacities of Member States to protect health, the Commission aims to boost mobility in summer 2020 by advising on a non-discriminatory and gradual reopening of borders between countries and regions with similar coronavirus risk profiles.
1. The Communication on the overall recovery strategy in the tourism and transport sectors
The Communication on the overall recovery strategy purports to set a coordinated framework of common, objective and non-discriminatory principles, criteria and recommendations to guide Member States, competent authorities, industry bodies, economic operators and citizens through the next steps of the de-confinement process.
According to the Commission, the needs and benefits of travel and tourism must be weighed against the risks of facilitating the spread of the virus and a resurgence of cases, which could require a reintroduction of confinement measures. For this reason, it recommends that preparedness plans be in place at all levels – from the EU and national levels down to the level of individual establishments, transport operators, and other segments of the tourism sector – so that appropriate action can be taken swiftly and in a coordinated manner, on the basis of explicit criteria.
The recovery strategy assesses the impact of the ongoing crisis on the transport and tourism sectors and explains how the mechanisms put in place so far by the EU (such as the SURE initiative, the State aid Temporary Framework, or the Coronavirus Investment Response Initiative and its update) should be applied to address the liquidity crunch and saving jobs. It also suggests some measures that Member States could adopt to contribute to these goals. The strategy also includes recommendations to promote local tourism and to maximise cooperation, both horizontally (between local, regional and national authorities and with the Commission) and vertically (between customs officials, transport providers, accommodation providers and all other actors in the ecosystem). Lastly, the Commission invites Member States to develop comprehensive recovery strategies for the most affected regions, based on existing smart specialisation and territorial strategies under cohesion policy. Such strategies should, in a first stage, support firms in tourism and related services to re-launch operations through better access to financing.
2. The Communication on a phased and coordinated approach to free movement
This Communication focuses on the gradual lifting of restrictions to free movement, which is key for the economic recovery and the most important precondition to restore tourism and transport.
The Commission invites Member States to engage in a process of reopening unrestricted cross-border movement within the EU through a phased process. Nevertheless, it makes clear that the reopening process must be dependent on the epidemiological situation, complemented by measures mitigating health risks, such as health security requirements on different modes of travel and accommodation.
Recommendations to safely restore the freedom of movement and lift internal border controls include, inter alia, the replacement of blanket restrictions by more targeted measures. The approach must be flexible, including the possibility to reintroduce certain measures if the epidemiological situation requires. The Commission recommends Member States to act on the basis of three criteria: (i) the evolving epidemiological situation, (ii) economic and social considerations, and (iii) the ability to apply containment measures throughout the whole journey, from origin to destination. It also recalls the need to respect the principle of non-discrimination when imposing and lifting travel restrictions.
Specific attention is devoted to tracing apps as a useful tool to restore mobility. The Commission recalls the agreement between Member States on guidelines to ensure cross-border interoperability so that citizens can be warned of a potential infection with coronavirus when they travel within the EU. According to the Commission, which relies in this regard in its Guidance on apps published on 20 April, tracing apps must be voluntary, transparent, temporary, cybersecure, use anonymised data, should rely on Bluetooth technology and be interoperable across borders as well as across operating systems.
The Commission suggests that, taking into account these criteria and measures, the lifting process could be structured in three phases, and that going from the current Phase 0 to the next stages should be done in a flexible manner, if necessary taking a step back in case the epidemiological situation worsens. In Phase 1, travel restrictions and border controls should be lifted for regions, areas and Member States with a positively evolving and sufficiently similar epidemiological situation. In cases where the epidemiological situation is less similar, additional safeguards and measures as well as monitoring could be applied. In Phase 2, all COVID-19 related restrictions and controls at the internal borders should be lifted, while keeping the necessary health measures in place inside (parts of) the territories of the Member States and maintaining extensive information campaigns.
3. The Communication on transport and connectivity
Through its Communication ‘Guidelines on the progressive restoration of transport services and connectivity’, the Commission aims at supporting the gradual re-establishment of transport whilst ensuring the safety of passengers and personnel. It recommends, for example, limiting contact between passengers and between them and transport workers, reducing the density of passengers where feasible, and putting in place adequate protocols in case passengers show coronavirus symptoms.
As long as restrictions on the movement of persons remain in place and freight flows also remain liable to be affected, the Commission calls on Member States to continue applying in a consistent and coordinated way the recommendations issued by the Commission over the past few weeks concerning the flow of goods, the free movement of critical workers, and restrictions to non-essential travel.
4. The Communication on tourism services and hospitality establishments
In its Communication ‘EU Guidance for the progressive resumption of tourism services and for health protocols in hospitality establishments’, the Commission sets out a common objective and non-discriminatory framework for the citizens, public authorities, businesses and stakeholders operating in the tourism sector, for the gradual re-establishment of tourism services.
As tourism will not be risk free as long as the virus is in circulation, the Commission recalls that vigilance, physical distancing and rigorous health precautions must be maintained to prevent further outbreaks as much as possible. In this regard, it recommends that Member States, when deciding on possible relaxation of strict community measures to enable resumption of tourism, carefully consider, inter alia, (i) the available epidemiological evidence, (ii) the existence of sufficient health system capacity for local people and tourists, (iii) the availability of robust surveillance and monitoring mechanisms, and (iv) the existing testing and contact tracing capacity.
5. The Recommendation on travel vouchers
The EU Passenger Rights Regulations (namely Regulation 261/2004 for flights, Regulation 1371/2007 for rail, Regulation 1177/2010 for ships, and Regulation 181/2011 for road transport), as well as the Package Travel Directive 2015/2302, grant travellers the right to choose between vouchers or cash reimbursement for cancelled transport tickets or travel packages. During the ongoing outbreak, the Commission has recalled the obligation to respect these rights, for example in its Interpretative Guidelines of last 18 March 2020.
However, in view of the unsustainable cash-flow that can result from massive reimbursement claims, the Commission Recommendation on travel vouchers aims to ensure that vouchers become a viable and more attractive alternative to reimbursement for cancelled trips in the context of the current pandemic. This soft law instrument is based on the premise that increased use of travel vouchers would help to ease the liquidity problems of carriers and organisers and could ultimately lead to better protection of the interests of passengers and travellers.
In this regard, the Commission recommends that voluntary vouchers be protected against insolvency of the issuer, with a minimum validity period of 12 months, and be refundable after, at most, one year, if not redeemed. They should also provide passengers sufficient flexibility, should allow the passengers to travel on the same route under the same service conditions or the travellers to book a package travel contract with the same type of services or of equivalent quality. They should also be transferable to another traveller.
Dolores Utrilla is Assistant Editor at EU Law Live and Associate Professor at the University of Castilla-La Mancha.