Is Europe Safe For Travelers? As The Omicron Variant Lurks, Here’s Where To Go

To find out how Europe is keeping safe from Covid-19 and the new Omicron variant, you might want to start in the Azores, the Portuguese island chain in the middle of the Atlantic. 

When you land here, it means you’ve already shown your negative PCR test result to your airline and to someone in Portuguese immigration. 

But there’s one more checkpoint.

The program is called My Safe Azores, and it requires anyone entering the islands to present proof of a negative test or a digital certificate of testing. And it’s not just when you’re coming from the mainland. If you fly, say, from the island of São Miguel to Pico, you also have to show your Covid test results.

The Azoreans are super-strict. When I tried to show them my Yellow Card, an internationally recognized vaccine certificate, they gave me a polite “não.” I rifled through my luggage for our PCR test, taken a few days earlier in California. Finally, they waved my sons and me through the checkpoint.

As Covid-19 cases surge in Northern Europe, and with the Omicron variant on the horizon, many people who are planning to visit in 2022 wonder if Europe is safe for travelers. The answer has always been: Yes and no. But now, more than ever, there’s a divide between countries like Portugal, where 86% of the population is vaccinated, and the northern European countries that are on lockdown, like Austria, where just 66% of the population has had its shots. 

This division is likely to continue, and perhaps deepen, as winter begins.

Azores: Masks everywhere, no exceptions

When it comes to Covid-19 and the potential threat of the Omicron variant, the Azores aren’t messing around. Masks are worn constantly, both by residents and visitors. Even in tourist attractions where you would imagine masks being optional, such as the volcanic pools at Caldera Velha, I saw people masking up outdoors.  

The extreme caution paid off. When I visited the islands in early November, there were a small number of cases and hospitalizations. More than 80% of the population was vaccinated, with many already having had a booster shot. If I wanted to go somewhere to hide from Covid, this would be the place.

The Azores are also almost indescribably beautiful. Even on a rainy day in November, the pictures I took looked surreal. The green hills around the famous Gorreana Tea Factory looked as if the color saturation had been turned up to the maximum level. The lava rock on Pico island seemed to be an unrealistic jet black. 

And yet it was real. 

The Azoreans didn’t seem to have the same problem with masks as some of the Americans I met this summer on my four-month road trip in the United States. At the Grand Hotel Açores Atlântico in Ponta Delgada, every staff member and every guest wore their face coverings religiously, except at mealtimes. There was no debate, no red-state/blue-state divide. It was a settled matter.

But how was the mainland handling the pandemic and the recent changes? I was about to find out.

Lisbon responds to a distant lockdown

I happened to be in Lisbon after a surge of cases in northern Europe and Austria’s controversial decision to impose another lockdown. I had spent a month in Lisbon in 2020, just before the pandemic, and apart from masking mandates and other Covid-19 precautions, it didn’t feel much different. 

But it was. Lisbon was filled with tourists in January and February before Covid-19, and I could scarcely imagine what it was like during high season. My Portuguese friends filled in the details: It was wall-to-wall with tourists, a good percentage of whom were American. 

The Americans had started to return now, but slowly. 

I’m not sure if Lisbon’s tourism authorities were happy about that, but for the rest of us, it provided some much-needed breathing room. The Americans will probably return next summer — unless the Omicron variant becomes a serious threat, which could very well happen.

“People have had a chance to assess what’s important in life in the last two years,” explained Chitra Stern, CEO of the Portuguese luxury hotel chain Martinhal Resorts. (I’ll have an exclusive interview with Stern tomorrow.) The crowds from 2018 and 2019 may have thinned, but many of the Americans who are coming have decided to stay longer, some permanently.

That makes sense. If I had to live anywhere, it would be in a country that had essentially achieved herd immunity and where getting vaccinated was uncontroversial. 

Before I left Lisbon, I had a chance to sit down with Christine Ourmières-Widener, the new CEO of TAP Air Portugal, for an interview. I asked her about how Covid-19 had affected her airline. Of course, like every other carrier, the impact of Covid-19 had been devastating. TAP had to lay off more than 2,000 people and had applied to the EU for aid. 

But what’s next? Ourmières-Widener told me the airline was preparing for a future in which Covid-19 was part of the operation. Permanently. 

“I don’t think this will ever end,” she told me. “We will have tests. We’ll have masks in aircraft — maybe forever.”

I asked the Portuguese people I met about the surge in Northern European cases and the prospect of another long Covid-19 winter. Without exception, they told me they were not concerned. Almost everyone they knew had gotten their shots and were following the accepted medical advice. 

Besides, with the relatively warmer winter temperatures in Portugal,it seemed unlikely that Covid would spread as quickly as it had up north. That was a world away. I had no idea how common that feeling was.

Alentejo: “We’re not worried” 

The Alentejo region of Portugal in the south-central part of the country is known for its medieval castles, rolling hills with olive trees, and vineyards. At this time of the year, you won’t have any trouble finding a hotel room or a table at a restaurant. Most tourism happens during the summer when Portuguese and visitors from southern Europe come to the area’s beaches to go camping or to stay in one of its boutique hotels.

A drive through the Alentejo countryside during the off-season is instructive. At some restaurants and hotels, fewer people were wearing masks. I asked why at one hotel, and an employee said that Portuguese regulations allowed some masking rules to be relaxed, even for indoor spaces.

I met up with Marta Cabral, the CEO of Rota Vicentina, a sustainable tourism project for Portugal’s southwest coast. Weren’t people afraid of another wave of infections? She smiled and explained that the Portuguese had taken the pandemic very seriously and had some of the highest vaccination rates in the world.

“We’re not worried,” she added.

I didn’t get the feeling that people were forgetting the rules in Alentejo. Nor were they beset by mask fatigue. They were instead acting from a place of confidence, trusting that the likelihood of another pandemic surge was significantly lower. And that seemed to give the other visitors a kind of confidence, too, that they could be safe on vacation.

Things are pretty quiet in this part of Portugal, and maybe it’s just as well. The odds of an outbreak aren’t that great. The real test will come next summer when the visitors start to arrive en masse again. When they start touring the region’s famous castles and wineries and taking selfies in the Alentejo cork forests. What then?  

This part of Europe is safe — for now

For anyone who wants to know if Europe is safe, the answer is: This part is safe — for now. High vaccination rates and low infection rates make Portugal an ideal off-season place to visit. But no one knows the future. The Omicron variant from Southern Africa could ruin everything — or it could do nothing. 

It’s all up in the air.

I think Ourmières-Widener, the new CEO of TAP Air Portugal, has the right perspective. Covid-19 will probably be with us for a while, and maybe forever. There will be places that are more safe and places that will be less safe, but probably no place that’s entirely safe.

Europe is starting to come to that realization.

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