• The San Juan Daily Star

With tears, hugs and balloons, US allows vaccinated foreign travelers to enter

Hada Kelmendi, left, after arriving from Kosovo, hugs Sami Kelmendi at Newark International Airport in Newark, N.J., on Monday, Nov. 8, 2021.

By Ceylan Yeginsu, Heather Murphy and Concepción De León

The United States reopened its borders for vaccinated foreign travelers earlier this week, ending more than 18 months of restrictions on international travel that separated families and cost the global travel industry hundreds of billions of dollars in tourism revenue.

Before dawn Monday, thousands of excited passengers flocked into Heathrow Airport for the first flights to the U.S. out of London. They were welcomed by dozens of airline staff who beamed and waved American flags as they ushered guests toward designated areas for documentation and security checks.

“New York, baby, here we come,” shouted one passenger as he high-fived a Virgin Atlantic staff member who was dressed as Elvis Presley. “God bless America,” yelled another.

The policy shift has come in time for the holiday season, when the beleaguered tourism industry is eagerly awaiting an influx of international visitors, especially in popular big-city destinations. Eager to make up for lost time, tourists traveling Monday had packed itineraries, from Broadway shows in New York and family days at Disney World in Florida to bingo nights in Arizona.

In New York alone, the absence of tourists in 2020 resulted in a loss of $60 billion in revenue and wiped out 89,000 jobs across retail, arts, culture, hotels and transportation, the state comptroller found. Although travelers from abroad account for just one-fifth of the city’s visitors, they generate 50% of the city’s tourism spending, according to NYC & Co., the city’s tourism promotion agency.

Towns along the borders with Mexico and Canada also suffered under the restrictions, which shut down land crossings to “nonessential” traffic and cost businesses millions of dollars. As a steady stream of traffic made its way through the San Ysidro, California, border crossing between Mexico and the U.S. Monday morning, Todd Gloria, the mayor of San Diego, said, “This is a great day for Tijuana, for San Diego, and for the entire binational region.”

Traffic at the Canadian border was less robust. Canadians returning to their country must take an expensive PCR test, which makes going to the U.S. for a quick shopping trip impractical.

Monday was a day for grandparents to hold their grandchildren for the first time, for couples who had to make do with virtual interactions for almost 18 months to kiss and for families toting balloons, bouquets and welcome signs to gather eagerly in airport waiting areas.

Among the first passengers arriving from Paris to New York’s Kennedy International Airport on Monday was Olivier Krug, the director of the Krug Champagne house. He had rushed to book as soon as the travel restrictions were lifted to attend a Champagne festival in New York, he said.

“I’m coming to represent my Champagne,” he said. “It’s not the same when you can’t clink your glasses together.”

Under the new rules, fully vaccinated travelers are allowed to enter the U.S. if they can show proof of vaccination and a negative coronavirus test taken within three days before departure. Unvaccinated Americans and children under 18 are exempt from the requirement, but must take a coronavirus test within 24 hours of travel.

While the new entry requirements ease travel for vaccinated travelers, they restrict people who were previously permitted to visit the U.S., including unvaccinated travelers from Japan, Singapore, Mexico and other countries. Those who have received vaccines that have not been approved by the World Health Organization for emergency use, like the Russian Sputnik V, will also not be permitted to enter.

Many of the airplanes arriving in the U.S. Monday were full of travelers reuniting with family and friends after a span of almost 600 days. At Miami International Airport, a major hub for travel to and from South and Central America, Natalia Vitorini, a 28-year-old student living in Miami, met her parents on Concourse D after they got off the morning’s first flight from São Paulo, Brazil. She had her 3-week-old son in a stroller.

Her mother, Débora Vitorini, 56, who works in the biomedical industry in São Paulo, bought her ticket within hours of the announcement of the reopening date. She and her husband, Sergio, arrived a little after 6 a.m.

The last time they had seen their daughter was in March 2020. Natalia Vitorini got pregnant earlier this year, and gave birth to her son a few weeks ago. “I was waiting for the border to open so my mom can come to see my baby,” she said.

Airlines saw a big spike in online searches and ticket bookings for international travel — particularly from Europe and Latin America — after the administration announced in October that travel would restart Nov. 8.

American Airlines said bookings over the three days after the announcement were up 66% for flights between Britain and the U.S., 40% for those from Europe and 74% for Brazil, compared with a similar period a week earlier. United Airlines said that it sold more tickets for trans-Atlantic flights in the days after the announcement than during a similar period in 2019, a first since the pandemic began. Delta Air Lines said many of its international flights Monday were fully booked.

Hotels across the country, particularly those in cities, also felt the effect of the reopening. Hyatt, the hotel group, said that approximately 50% of its bookings by international travelers to the U.S. for the week of Nov. 8 came after the opening date was announced in mid-October, with travelers flocking to top cities like Los Angeles, New York and Miami.

The JW Marriott in Downtown Los Angeles saw a 17.7% increase in international bookings over the past week compared with the previous month. The city of Los Angeles is projecting an additional 1 million visitors and $1 billion in revenue as a result of the country reopening to vaccinated international visitors.

There had been concerns about long lines at the airports given the additional paperwork required to fly. At Heathrow, long lines quickly formed at check-in counters as passengers fumbled through their phones and printed-out documents, though there were no major delays.

“Goodness, I feel so nervous,” said Bernadette Sumners, 56, from Stratford-on-Avon, England, who was taking her first flight since the start of the pandemic to visit her daughter in Oregon and her son in New York.

“There are so many things to remember and organize,” she said as she sat on a bench in the departure terminal, refreshing her email feed every few minutes as she waited for her negative coronavirus test result. “It’s very stressful, but I know it’s going to be worth it when I see my children and meet my grandchildren,” she said, her eyes welling up with tears.

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