Relief and reunions in sight as US finally lifts Covid travel restrictions
On 8 November, the US will ease restrictions that effectively halted tourism and non-essential travel from 33 countries, including the UK, most of Europe and China. The restrictions have separated families and loved ones, with thousands missing out on birthdays, holidays – and in the case of the British tennis star Emma Raducanu’s parents – a US Open final.
Now all visitors with a WHO-approved vaccination (which includes AstraZeneca) will be allowed to visit the US. Visitors with passports from any country where fewer than 10% of the country’s population has been vaccinated will also be allowed.
Virgin Atlantic say bookings to the US, largely to New York, have surged 600% since the announcement was made. Delta Air Lines’ CEO, Ed Bastian, has predicted an “onslaught of travel all at once”, in November with queues likely at airports. Hotel prices in New York are also returning to normal levels after a summer where discounts abounded.
Tourism industry experts expect this surge to last for a while. “The pent-up demand from overseas to visit the US will remain strong for at least several years,” Tim Hentschel, HotelPlanner’s co-founder and CEO, told the Guardian.
Some form of travel ban has been in place since the start of 2020, Donald Trump issued the first proclamation that stopped most travellers from China visiting the US – with the list of banned countries quickly expanding. Land crossings from Mexico and Canada were also banned, although there were exemptions for green cards and some work visas.
For many, that ban has only worsened the toll of the pandemic, further isolating people as family members fell ill or life teetered on the edge of what was manageable.
Before the pandemic, Diana Jimenez, a 26-year old graphic designer living in Tijuana, Mexico, would cross the border every few months, mostly to see her sister and her family in Wyoming.
She says the lack of visitation has been hard in the last year, especially when her father got sick with cancer. After the restrictions are lifted, Jimenez plans on taking a road trip to visit her sister’s family. “We are only the two of us and we are really close,” Jimenez said. She misses her sister dearly, but really it’s her niece who she aches to see: “She’s 12, and she’s the love of my life. I used to clean her diapers when she was a baby,” says Jimenez.
Couples have also been split by the travel ban. Georgia Samuel is an Australian citizen who is currently studying for her master’s degree in communications at the University of Southern California, but has a boyfriend living near London. They last saw each other in July, when she moved to the US, but will reunite on 14 November when he flies in. “I was hoping that he’d be able to come to the US with me to help me set up my life,” Samuel said. They had spent many months working on trying to find a way around the ban, “which ultimately just wasn’t possible for us. I really felt like the ban was overextended and overdrawn for at least months, and I was really relieved when it was announced it would be removed.”
The concern over travel has led people to seek out advice and vent their frustrations online. On Reddit, a forum called r/UStravelban is filled with stories from people waiting to reunite with loved ones.
“Finally, I can meet my girlfriend after 2 years, so we can finally tie the knot after 12 years of courtship,” one user wrote in September.
“Although I myself am American, my long time partner is not and has missed my sister’s wedding, has not yet met my nephew, and I’ve ultimately had to forgo these lovely trips to the US without him. Now we’re thrilled to be going home for Thanksgiving this year together as a family!” wrote another.
Although most travellers have been banned there were some loopholes for those with time and resources. The US had allowed most vaccinated tourists from Canada and Mexico to travel via air (but not over the land border) since summer 2021. This meant travellers from Europe and China could stop in the neighbouring countries for 15 days – the amount of time required by US border control – and then cross into the US. It created a surprising boon for long-stay tourism in Mexico, with some resorts reporting a 50% increase in bookings year-on-year.
Even with borders set to open, there are complications for crossing the border into the US, especially for Mexicans. Traffic at the San Ysidro border in Tijuana is compounded by the rollicking open-air markets on the highways – at the moment this delays crossing by about an hour, but when the border opens to tourists, it is expected to take five or more hours, due to unprecedented demand.
On social media, Spanish-language memes lampoon 8 November as a day when Mexican tourists will gum up traffic so they can go shopping at Ross Dress for Less, a department store popular in southern California.
While most European visitors are able to travel on an Esta visa waiver, most visitors from Mexico will still need to apply for a tourist visa. “We have a group waiting for an appointment at the embassy, and more than 50 families waiting to start their process,” says Heidy Bizarron, a nurse who works with the Federacion de Nayaritas Unidos, which connects separated families between the US and Mexico.
“This is how long the wait has been,” says Bizarron, explaining how the families for whom she’s arranging reunion trips have already been rescheduled twice.
Sometimes, what happens in between the wait is heartbreaking. “There are even fathers or mothers who have not had the opportunity to reconnect with their children, since they die in the process,” says Bizarron.
While Jimenez said that she’s excited that she can see her niece and sister again, she’s still concerned that the rush to travel back into the US could worsen the spread of the virus, and ultimately lead to the border closing once more.
“I’m a little bit worried that if a lot of people go there, it’s going to be people getting sick all over again, and they’re going to close it again,” she said.