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Roam close to home: Europe's tourists play safe in pandemic

Many a journey to far-flung corners of Europe starts in a dusty industrial yard in east Berlin, where Felix Rascher carefully tends to his small fleet of Volkswagen camper vans, a favorite among free-spirited travelers the world over.

But this spring, the pandemic threw a wrench in the works of the travel industry, as countries closed their borders and residents hunkered down to stop the spread of the coronavirus.

Hotels, airlines, travel agents, tour operators, restaurants, local guides and car rentals saw income evaporate as lockdowns came into force.

In this Tuesday, May 26, 2020 photo, Felix Rascher poses for a photo between Volkswagen camper vans he rent to tourists in a yard in Berlin, Germany. Germany's federal states are starting to reopen the touristic hotspots after the lockdown because of the coronavirus crisis and hope that German tourists will come. (AP PhotoMarkus Schreiber)

“Our business normally begins in mid-March,” Rascher, 37, said. “The Easter rentals collapsed completely, of course.”

According to Thierry Breton, the European Union's internal market commissioner, some 27 million jobs across the EU are directly or indirectly linked to tourism, accounting for 12% of employment.

Some 3 million businesses, most of them small companies like Rascher's, benefit from Europe's normally wide-open borders, helping make the continent the world's top tourism destination with half of all global arrivals.

In this Friday May 22, 2020 photo, a restaurant a illuminated on a pier in Sellin on the island Ruegen, Germany. Germany's states, which determine their own coronavirus-related restrictions, have begun loosening lockdown rules to allow domestic tourists to return. ( Jens Buettnerdpa via AP)

Government aid packages have kept many businesses afloat, but mass unemployment in the tourism sector is likely once those funds run dry.

The dearth of tourists is particularly painful for some of the countries whose citizens and health care systems have suffered the most during the pandemic.

Spain, which gets 12% of its GDP from tourism, recorded no hotel occupancies in April. Normally crowded travel hot spots such as Rome, Paris, Venice and Barcelona have at times appeared deserted in recent months.

People attend a demonstration of the tourism business at the cathedral square in Erfurt, Germany, Wednesday, May 20, 2020. Representatives of coach companies, travel agencies and tour operators protest to draw attention to the difficult situation caused by the ban on employment since the new coronavirus outbreak. (AP PhotoJens Meyer)

Industry representatives are now pressing European governments to reopen borders in time for the summer vacation season.

Germany, with its 83 million inhabitants and generous annual holiday rules, will be crucial to the recovery of Europe's tourism industry - especially while oversees visitors from China and the United States remain locked out by travel bans.

German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas has indicated that if conditions are right, he would soon like to remove 31 European countries from a travel warning issued in March.

25 May 2020, Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania, Schaprode: Tourists with backpacks and suitcases wait on a pier for transport with a ferry to the Baltic island Hiddensee in Schaprode, Germany, Monday May 25, 2020. In German state Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania, after the travel ban due to the coronavirus protection measures, holidaymakers from other federal states are now allowed to travel to the island. ( Jens Buettnerdpa via AP)

But Maas has also made clear that he doesn’t want to repeat the logistical nightmare of repatriating a quarter of a million Germans that were stranded abroad during the first wave of the outbreak in March.

As talks among European officials drag on, some countries are already vying for sun-starved travelers:

— Portugal says travelers arriving by plane won't be quarantined, though there will be “minimal health controls” at airports.

Beach chairs placed in lines at the Baltic Sea beach in Warnemuende, Germany, May 25, 2020. Germany's northern states are starting to reopen the touristic hotspots after the lockdown because of the coronavirus crisis and hope that German tourists will come. (Bernd Wuestneckdpa via AP)

— Greece, where 20% of the economy is based on tourism, plans to start welcoming foreign visitors again starting June 15. The country says there will not be a required self-quarantine period, only random sample tests. Consumer tax cuts to lower the price of ferry, plane and bus tickets — as well as of coffee — will be offered during the tourist season.

— Cyprus is pledging to cover all costs for anyone testing positive for the coronavirus while on holiday in the east Mediterranean island nation. Tourism directly accounts for 13% of Cyprus’ economy. The country expects to lose this year as much as 70% of 2.6-billion euros in tourism-generated revenue.

— The mayor of Vienna will switch on the Austrian capital's giant Ferris wheel Friday to symbolize the restart of the tourism industry. Some resorts in Austria have already launched advertising campaigns in Germany offering special deals with the option of short-notice cancellations to reassure those anxious about booking trips.

Chairs stand with the prescribed safety distance on a beach of G'hren on the island of R'gen, Mecklenburg-Western, Germany, Friday, May 22, 2020. After the shutdown as a coronavirus protection measure in mid-March, the tourism industry in Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania is starting again step by step. From May 25, 2020 guests from other federal states will again be allowed to travel to the north-east. (Jens B'ttnerdpa via AP)

Still, it's unclear if travelers will take the bait.

Concerned about a possible second wave of viral infections, many Germans have set their sights on vacation destinations closer to home.

This week, officials along Germany's chilly Baltic Coast rubbed their hands as the first gaggle of domestic tourists arrived for a taste of sea air.

A woman dressed as New York's Statue of Liberty attends a demonstration of the tourism business at the cathedral square in Erfurt, Germany, Wednesday, May 20, 2020. Representatives of coach companies, travel agencies and tour operators protest to draw attention to the difficult situation caused by the ban on employment since the new coronavirus outbreak. Slogen on her protest poster reads: 'Tourism keeps the world together'. (AP PhotoJens Meyer)

“Some landlords are telling me they’ve never seen such demand as now, because it’s difficult to book anything abroad,” said Rene Roloff, the mayor of Prerow. The 130-year-old seaside resort with its 1,500 inhabitants depends almost entirely on tourism and normally has 1.2 million overnight stays each year.

Roloff said the surrounding county's low number of COVID-19 cases was a selling point, adding that all businesses have been primed to enforce distancing rules.

“If people stick to them, then I think the risk of anything happen is very low here,” he said. Hotels in the region have had the number of rooms they can rent out capped at 60% of normal capacity.

Cyclists ride their bicycles over a dyke by the sea at the island Norderney, Germany, Monday, May 25, 2020. Germany's northern states are starting to reopen the touristic hotspots after the lockdown because of the coronavirus crisis and hope that German tourists will come. (Rolf Vennenbernddpa via AP)

Lothar Jaeschke, head of tourism in Prerow, went further: “We expect that overall, if developments stay this way, it’s going to be a good season.”

Many hotels in northern Germany are already booked up for the Pentecost holiday weekend. The mayor of Cuxhaven, a popular seaside resort two hours' drive from Hamburg, is even pleading with day trippers to stay away and give space to locals and long-term guests.

Rascher said bookings for his VW camper vans are slowly beginning to pick up, too.

In this Saturday, May 16, 2020 photo, tourists with suitcases walk across the island of Spiekeroog, Germany. Germany's states, which determine their own coronavirus-related restrictions, have begun loosening lockdown rules to allow domestic tourists to return. (Sina Schuldtdpa via AP)

His clients, ranging from students to retirees and families with young children, normally have a bit of adventure in mind when they pick up one of the red or white vans, some of which have more than 500,000 kilometers (300,000 miles) on the odometer.

But with the risk of a second coronavirus wave and sudden lockdowns looming, Rascher said travelers might want to limit their horizons.

“When we get a request now, I always ask the guests to consider whether they’d be happy with a tour of Germany," said Rascher. “I really see it as a chance to get to know the country better."

In this Wednesday, May 20, 2020 photo, pylons and arrows sprayed on the ground, regulate the access to the beach at the Baltic Sea in Haffkrug, Germany. Germany's states, which determine their own coronavirus-related restrictions, have begun loosening lockdown rules to allow domestic tourists to return. (Daniel Bockwoldtdpa via AP)

Sopke contributed to this report from Prerow, Germany.

In this Monday May 25, 2020 photo, two tourists stand on the beach on the Baltic island of Usedom near the city of Zinnowitz, Germany. Germany's states, which determine their own coronavirus-related restrictions, have begun loosening lockdown rules to allow domestic tourists to return. (Stefan Sauerdpa via AP)

In this Saturday, May 16, 2020 photo a seagull flies over a small number of beach chairs on the island Spiekeroog, Germany. Germany's states, which determine their own coronavirus-related restrictions, have begun loosening lockdown rules to allow domestic tourists to return. (Sina Schuldtdpa via AP)

In this Thursday, May 21, 2020 photo, beach chairs cast long shadows on the beach at the Baltic Sea Luebeck-Travemuende, Germany. Germany's states, which determine their own coronavirus-related restrictions, have begun loosening lockdown rules to allow domestic tourists to return. (Daniel Bockwoldtdpa via AP)

Parasols wait for tourists on a hot summer day at a lake in Xanten, Germany, Thursday, May 28, 2020. Germany's states, which determine their own coronavirus-related restrictions, have begun loosening lockdown rules to allow domestic tourists to return. (AP PhotoMartin Meissner)