The U.S. lifted restrictions Monday on travel from a long list of countries including Mexico, Canada and most of Europe, setting the stage for emotional reunions nearly two years in the making and providing a boost for the airline and tourism industries decimated by the pandemic.
Wives will hug husbands for the first time in months. Grandmas will coo over grandsons who have doubled in age since they last saw them. Aunts and uncles and cousins will snuggle babies they haven’t met yet.
“I’m going to jump into his arms, kiss him, touch him,” Gaye Camara said of the husband in New York she has not seen since before COVID-19 brought the fly-here-there-and-everywhere world to a halt.
“Just talking about it makes me emotional,” Camara, 40, said as she wheeled her luggage through Paris’ Charles de Gaulle airport, which could almost be mistaken for its pre-pandemic self, busy with humming crowds, albeit in face masks.
The rules that go into effect Monday allow air travel from a series of countries from which it has been restricted since the early days of the pandemic — as long as the traveler has proof of vaccination and a negative COVID-19 test. Those crossing land borders from Mexico or Canada will require proof of vaccination but no test.
American citizens and permanent residents were always allowed to enter the U.S., but the travel bans grounded tourists, thwarted business travelers and often separated families.
Airlines are now preparing for a surge in travel after the pandemic and resulting restrictions caused international travel to plunge. Data from travel and analytics firm Cirium showed airlines are increasing flights between the United Kingdom and the U.S. by 21% this month over last month.
When Camara last saw Mamadou, her husband, in January 2020, they had no way of knowing that they’d have to wait 21 months before holding each other again. She lives in France’s Alsace region, where she works as a secretary. He is based in New York.
“It was very hard at the beginning. I cried nearly every night,” she said. “I got through it thanks to him. He knows how to talk to me, to calm me.”
Video calls, text messages, phone conversations kept them connected — but couldn’t fill the void of separation.
“I cannot wait,” she said. “Being with him, his presence, his face, his smile.”
Maria Giribet has not seen her twin grandchildren Gabriel and David for about half of their lives. Now 3 1/2, the boys are in San Francisco, which during the height of the pandemic might as well have been another planet for 74-year-old Giribet, who lives on the Mediterranean isle of Majorca.
“I’m going to hug them, suffocate them, that’s what I dream of,” Giribet said after checking in for her flight. A widow, she lost her husband to a lengthy illness before the pandemic and her three grown children all live abroad.
“I found myself all alone,” said Giribet, who was flying for the first time in her life by herself.
For Martine Kerherve, being separated from loved ones in the United States was filled with worries that they might not survive the pandemic that has killed more than 5 million people worldwide.
“We told ourselves that we could die without seeing each other,” said Kerherve, who was heading for Fort Lauderdale, Florida, from Paris. “We all went through periods of depression, anxiety.”
Before the pandemic, it was a trip Kerherve and her partner, Francis Pasquier, would make once or twice a year. When they lost that, “we lost our bearings,” Pasquier said.
The change will also have a profound effect on the U.S. borders with Mexico and Canada, where traveling back and forth was a way of life until the pandemic hit and the U.S. shut down nonessential travel.
Malls, restaurants and Main Street shops in U.S. border towns have been devastated by the lack of visitors from Mexico. On the boundary with Canada, cross-border hockey rivalries that were community traditions were upended. Churches that had members on both sides of the border are hoping to welcome parishioners they haven’t seen in nearly two years.
River Robinson’s American partner wasn’t able to be in Canada for the birth of their baby boy 17 months ago. She was thrilled to hear about the U.S. reopening.
“I’m planning to take my baby down for the American Thanksgiving,” said Robinson, who lives in St. Thomas, Ontario. “If all goes smoothly at the border, I’ll plan on taking him down as much as I can.”
It’s “crazy to think he has a whole other side of the family he hasn’t even met yet,” she added.
The U.S. will accept travelers who have been fully vaccinated with any of the shots approved for emergency use by the World Health Organization, not just those in use in the U.S. That’s a relief for many in Canada, where the AstraZeneca vaccine is widely used.
But millions of people around the world who were vaccinated with Russia’s Sputnik V, China’s CanSino or others not OK’d by the WHO won’t be able to travel to the U.S.
The moves come as the U.S. has seen its COVID-19 outlook improve dramatically in recent weeks since the summer delta surge that pushed hospitals to the brink in many locations.
Those in the travel industry hope it will provide a boost after COVID-19 travel bans brought the sector to its knees.
Ben and Becca Akhurst were making the kind of trip Monday that many in the industry hope for: They were leaving London’s Heathrow Airport to visit Disney World.
The husband and wife, both aged 31 and from Ashford, England, had been forced to cancel similar trips five times. They planned to spend time with friends they made during the pandemic through their “shared love of Disney.”
Travel agent Francis Legros, flying from Paris to a travel industry convention in Las Vegas, jetted off determined to breathe life back into his company.
“We are rebuilding,” he said. “It’s a new chapter, a new professional life.”
Associated Press writer Rob Gillies in Toronto contributed to this report.