'Inundated with American travelers': End of testing rule opens summer travel floodgates

Blane Bachelor, CNN

    (CNN) -- Just as summer heats up, the US is lifting its long-standing requirement for all travelers entering the country to present a negative Covid-19 test.

The news brings both a collective sigh of relief and a likely flood of new international travelers to an already chaotic summer season.

For many American travelers, the development means no longer having to worry about the hassle of testing before returning to the States, or the cost and burden of remaining abroad to quarantine and wait for a negative test result if a pre-travel test comes up positive.

US-bound international travelers, meanwhile, can plan trips without the fear of having to cancel because of a positive test. Most non-US citizens must still be vaccinated to travel to the country.

And the battered travel industry is cheering the removal of the barrier to both groups of prospective customers.

The rule, which was put in place in January 2021, will end for US-bound travelers beginning at 12:01 a.m. ET on Sunday, June 12. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says it will reassess the rule if the Covid-19 situation changes.

The development comes after intense pressure from travel trade and tourism groups as the industry continues to bounce back after more than two years of a pandemic-induced downturn.

For months, such organizations had been calling for the testing requirement to be scrapped, as it has been in Canada and the United Kingdom since March, as well as most countries in Europe. After Friday's news of the rule's end, the American Hotel and Lodging Association (AHLA) and the US Travel Association (USTA) were among the groups issuing statements applauding the move.

AHLA President and CEO Chip Rogers described it as a "significant win for hotels and the broader travel industry" in a statement released Friday, calling the requirement outdated and creating a "chilling effect" on inbound international travel.

USTA President and CEO Roger Dow, meanwhile, emphasized ending the testing requirement could bring an additional 5.4 million visitors to the US and an additional $9 billion in travel spending through the end of 2022.

'2022 is three seasons in one'

Even as many in the travel industry support the development, some experts are warning about the increased demand, decreased availability and higher prices sure to come as a result, exacerbating what has already been a chaotic travel landscape both Stateside and abroad.

"Europe is going to be inundated with American travelers," Mina Agnos, president of Travelive, an agency specializing in travel to Greece with offices in Athens and Delray Beach, Florida, told CNN Travel via email.

"In speaking with travel consultants across the US, the consensus is 2022 is 'three seasons in one.' Hotel availability is very tight and local services [such as] guides, drivers, local air, ferry and rail service and restaurants will all be at capacity this season," Agnos said.

It's an assessment the tourism industry, especially the hotel sector, is thrilled to see.

Chitra Stern, CEO of Martinhal Resorts, a family-centric luxury hotel group with properties across Portugal, said the US testing restrictions have "held many travelers back" from planning trips abroad, especially families, which are the brand's core demographic.

Because a negative test is no longer required to return to the US, Stern expects to see a surge in US-based guests -- the top market for Martinhal's property in downtown Lisbon -- booking stays in Portugal and throughout Europe.

"We now anticipate welcoming many more Americans booking last-minute summer trips and long weekend city breaks," Stern said.

Laura Citron, CEO of Visit London, expects to see a similar bump in US travelers, who make up London's largest inbound tourism market, heading to the capital city this summer.

"Throughout the pandemic, we saw spikes in bookings from the US to London when travel restrictions had been lifted," Citron told CNN Travel via text message, adding flight passengers from the US to London nearly reached pre-pandemic levels during the week of the Platinum Jubilee celebrations.

According to Agnos, travelers with their hearts set on a Greek vacation this summer should start planning their trips immediately, and expect to contend with crowds. If Agnos' business is any indication, the Mediterranean country is poised to see an overflow of tourism in the coming months, so much so, June is "virtually sold out" for Travelive's guides, vehicles for transfers and even yachts, Agnos said.

It's a first in the travel operator's 21-year history.

"Hotel availability is a serious concern, even in areas like Athens and Mykonos, where inventory was always adequate," Agnos explained. "It is the first time we have ever had to stop taking on business due to the lack of availability."

'A boost in trans-Atlantic demand'

It remains to be seen exactly how much the lifted restriction will trigger a bump in airfare costs. But it is safe to say with the inevitable increase in demand, passengers should consider booking flights as soon as possible to get the best deal.

According to Scott Keyes, founder of Scott's Cheap Flights, an airfare tracking and booking site, the increased demand could result in airlines expanding routes and service to popular destinations like Europe.

"I'd expect to see a boost in trans-Atlantic travel demand and airlines responding by adding more flights to capture the new swaths of travelers eager to travel between the US and Europe," Keyes said.

It is definitely about supply and demand, Kyle Potter, editor of flight deal and travel website, Thrifty Traveler, told CNN Travel.

"Many domestic fares are higher than ever, and that's because that's where demand is highest," Potter said. "As more people look to Europe and beyond, we could easily see airlines raise fares, especially during the peak summer season."

Potter recommends traveling in mid to late August and early September. "We're still finding some great deals to Europe like $500 (or less) nonstop fares to London or Rome in that time period after the trans-Atlantic rush drops off a bit."

Travelers to high-volume destinations should also pack some extra patience in light of the staff shortages the travel industry continues to grapple with across the hotel, restaurant and airline sectors.

"I have concerns about the delivery of service this year," Agnos said. "Staffing remains very difficult, so service levels may not be comparable to pre-Covid levels, particularly in the luxury travel services."

Kathy Hirst, travel manager for Black Pearl Luxury Services, a Salt Lake City-based custom travel operator, said while she is "thrilled" about the lifted testing requirement, she is also anticipating some frustration from clients who waited to book international travel until testing was no longer necessary, and now may face limited availability.

"Now that they are ready to book, they will most likely be disappointed because of lack of inventory with tours, hotels, cruises and airline tickets," Hirst said via email. "Right now we are finding many hotels, airlines, tour companies and cruises are having a difficult time operating because of a lack of employees."

Like Agnos, Hirst has noticed a significant uptick in inquiries and bookings to European hot spots including France, Greece, Italy and the United Kingdom. She said destinations in the Caribbean and Mexico also are "extremely popular," and demand across the board has been so high, some of her colleagues are turning down requests to book custom trips.

"These itineraries are a lot of fun to plan but very time-consuming and so many advisers are turning down new clients because we are so inundated with requests," Hirst said.

"People have waited two years to travel, and the pent-up demand is a good problem to have on our end but also making days very long and stressful," she said. "Hopefully things will level off in the coming months, but for now travel is hotter than I have seen it in my 20-plus years in the industry."

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