Opinion: It’s time to reopen our borders to international travelers

The Biden administration last Friday extended its travel ban on non-essential travelers crossing the nation’s northern and southern land borders, despite Canada reopening its border to vaccinated Americans on August 9. 

Canada plans to welcome travelers of all nationalities starting September 7, joining most developed countries, which started reopening their borders to vaccinated travelers over the summer.

The United States, however, continues to maintain a nonsensical patchwork of restrictions for foreign visitors, hurting American businesses and doing little to prevent new infections.

Currently, most Canadians and Mexicans are unable to enter the U.S. via land ports of entry, even if they are vaccinated against Covid-19 with a vaccine offered in the U.S. All “nonessential” travel across America’s land borders has been restricted since March 21, 2020, with the policy recently being extended to September 21.

However, Canadians and Mexicans can fly across the border and into a U.S. airport with just a negative antigen test for Covid-19, regardless of their vaccination status.

Furthermore, most Europeans are unable to fly to the United States if they have been in the United Kingdom, Ireland or Schengen Area in the previous 14 days. This is despite most European countries currently having fewer Covid-19 infections per capita than the U.S.. 

However, Europeans can enter the country if they have spent 14 days in a third country, such as Mexico or Turkey, despite Covid-19 being much more prevalent in those countries.

Americans this summer have been able to travel to most European countries quarantine-free with just a negative PCR test. Some countries, such as Greece, do not even require pre-departure testing for vaccinated travelers.

In 2019, more than one million international tourists from countries affected by the air-travel restriction visited Arizona. In the same year, over four million Mexican tourists visited Arizona for at least one day, the majority driving across the border. In total, international tourists contributed an estimated $4.6 billion to Arizona’s economy in 2019.

In the first six months of 2019, 1,115,241 international passengers traveled through Phoenix’s Sky Harbor International Airport. In the first six months of this year, there were only 509,297 international passengers – just a 2.4% increase from 2020, compared to domestic air travel’s 42% rebound at Sky Harbor.

Border communities have been impacted especially hard by the ban on nonessential travel at the Mexican border. In 2019, over 20 million people entered Arizona from Mexico. It is estimated that Mexican residents spend over $7.3 million per day in Arizona.

Prior to the pandemic, an estimated 60% of Nogales, Arizona’s sales tax revenue came from Sonorans shopping in the city. For border community merchants, this type of travel is anything but “nonessential.”

While most developed nations have adapted their border policy to account for vaccination status or the prevalence of Covid-19 in the country visitors are traveling from, the federal government has only expanded its blanket travel ban on many countries, which now includes China, Iran, the Schengen Area, the United Kingdom, Ireland, Brazil, South Africa and India, in addition to the closure of America’s land borders to “nonessential” travel.

We can safely reopen our borders without threatening the progress we have made against Covid-19.

England, for example, maintains a tier system of countries, with travelers from “green” countries facing fewer restrictions than those arriving from “amber” or “red” countries. Vaccinated Americans traveling to England only require a pre-departure Covid-19 test and a Covid-19 test on their second day in the United Kingdom, with no quarantine required.

We’re more than capable of establishing a similar system in the United States – or doing away with travel bans for vaccinated travelers altogether.

Arjun Rondla

Arjun Rondla is an undergraduate studying political science and international trade at Arizona State University and an intern at the Arizona Chamber of Commerce and Industry.

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