BRUSSELS — The European Union recommended on Friday that its member states lift the ban on nonessential travel for visitors from the United States, a move sure to be welcomed by Americans eager to travel to the continent after more than a year of tight restrictions.
The recommendation is nonbinding, and each member state can decide what regulations, including quarantines, to impose on visitors. Americans have been mainly banned from Europe as the United States grappled with one of the highest caseloads in the world.
The opening is also expected to provide relief for southern European countries that are very dependent on tourism, including Italy and Portugal. Those countries pressed the European Commission to act so that the entire summer tourist season would not be hurt by the absence of Americans, who are considered relatively big spenders.
The decision comes just days after President Biden’s visit to Brussels, where he met with top E.U. officials.
But despite vows of mutual affection between Mr. Biden and the officials, travel remains one-sided. Europeans are still barred from entering the United States for nonessential travel even if they have been fully vaccinated, following a sweeping travel ban announced by President Donald J. Trump in March 2020 and extended in January by Mr. Biden.
The formal decision on Friday was made by Europe’s economy ministers, who agreed to add the United States to a list of countries considered safe from an epidemiological point of view. That means that travelers from those countries should be free to enter the bloc, even if they are not fully vaccinated, on the basis of a negative PCR test for an active coronavirus infection.
But the European Union cannot compel member nations to open to American visitors. Each country is free to keep or impose more stringent restrictions, such as an obligation to quarantine upon arrival or to undergo a series of further tests.
Countries like Greece and Spain, more heavily dependent on tourism, already moved in recent weeks to reopen to tourists from outside the European Union, including from the United States. The European Commission criticized those early moves.
More open travel last summer between European countries was blamed for deadly surges in cases.
But more than half of E.U. residents have now received at least one vaccine shot, creating better conditions for opening economies and restoring freer travel Still, worries remain about opening up while highly contagious new variants, like the one known as Delta, are spreading
“Bringing back travel between continents is a good thing, but it is not risk-free,” said Marc Van Ranst, one of Belgium’s top virologists and a government adviser. “Loosening travel restrictions during the summer period will inevitably lead to the spread of the Delta variant, also in countries where it is not established yet.”
Still, Dr. Van Ranst said he did not expect a major surge in Covid-19 cases like that last fall, but he insisted on the importance of a second vaccine dose to provide adequate protection.
Jean-Michel Dogné, a professor at the University of Namur in Belgium and an adviser to the European Medicines Agency and the World Health Organization, praised the decision to open up to travelers from the United States because America “is vaccinating a lot, and with vaccines that are effective against the Delta variant.”
But he also cautioned against opening up too much and too quickly. “We are in an intermediary situation,” he said. “The vaccination campaign is advancing, but we need to follow the situation very closely and be ready to reintroduce restrictions.”
To do so, the bloc has maintained a so-called emergency brake, a legal tool that allows it to quickly impose more restrictive measures.
In spring 2020, to try to limit the spread of the coronavirus, the European Union largely blocked the arrival of external travelers. There were a few exceptions for nations that fulfilled specific criteria, including low infection rates, as well as more general conditions, like the overall response to Covid-19 and the reciprocity of outside countries in welcoming European visitors.
By introducing these less precise requirements, the bloc gained more discretion in choosing which countries to include in the list. China fulfills the quantitative criteria, but the entry of Chinese travelers is conditional upon reciprocity, though the E.U. economy ministers approved dropping the reciprocity requirement on Friday for Hong Kong and Macau. The reciprocity requirement seems to have been dropped in the case of the United States.
Restrictive policies on movement on both sides of the Atlantic separated families and communities, caused billion-dollar losses to tourism and airline industries and mostly stopped trans-Atlantic business travel. Many Europeans living and working in the United States did not travel to Europe because once the U.S. ban was in place, they could be denied re-entry to America, said Célia Belin, a visiting foreign policy fellow in the Center on the United States and Europe at the Brookings Institution.
“My whole family is in France or Belgium,” said Ms. Belin, a French citizen living in Washington, D.C. “We have been completely isolated here. It has been heartbreaking.”
As Europe’s vaccination campaign gained momentum after an initial slump, the European Commission recommended last month to allow entry without restrictions to anyone from outside the bloc who was not an E.U. national and who was fully vaccinated with shots approved by the bloc’s medicines regulator or by the World Health Organization.
Friday’s decision extends that recommendation to everyone from the United States, vaccinated or not.
The lifting of travel restrictions between the world’s wealthiest countries with high vaccination rates further highlights the stark global inequalities when it comes to access to Covid-19 vaccines, experts say.
“Only 0.3 percent of Covid-19 vaccine doses administered globally have been in low-income countries,” said Dr. Thomas Kenyon, chief health officer at Project HOPE, a global health and relief organization, and former global health director at the Centers for Disease Control. “This is due in large part to inadequate global vaccine supply to meet current demand and the inability of low-income countries to compete in the marketplace against wealthier nations.”
The further opening of the European Union comes as it works toward a July 1 goal for the widespread implementation of a Covid certificate system. Sixteen member countries started issuing and accepting the certificate at the beginning of June, ahead of schedule.
The certificate records whether people have been fully vaccinated against the coronavirus, recovered from Covid-19 or tested negative within the past 72 hours, and is to allow people who meet one of the three criteria to move freely across the 27 member countries. The bloc’s long-term goal is the compatibility of its certificates with those issued by national authorities in partner countries such as the United States, but that goal could be far-off.