Travellers excited at the prospect of seeing family and friends in the United States for the first time since the pandemic started took off early on Monday from London, Paris and other cities following the lifting of U.S. travel restrictions.
The extraordinary U.S. travel restrictions, first imposed in early 2020, had barred access to non-U.S. citizens travelling from 33 countries – including China, India and much of Europe – and had also restricted overland entry from Mexico and Canada.
From Monday, travellers who can show official proof of vaccination against COVID-19 and have had a recent, negative viral test can again fly to the United States.
The unprecedented travel ban, first imposed by the Trump administration, has dealt a huge blow to tourism but has also kept loved ones from attending weddings, funerals, or meeting new babies.
“I think we might just start crying,” said Bindiya Patel, who was going to see her young nephew in New York for the first time. “We’ve been facetiming the whole year. But, you know, to actually see (them) in person…” said her mother, Bhavna Patel, delighted about getting to meet her grandson for the first time.
Long-term rivals British Airways and Virgin Atlantic carried out a simultaneous take-off from London’s Heathrow parallel runways just before 0900 GMT.
The flights are full, Virgin Atlantic CEO Shai Weiss said, while passenger volume is expected to remain high in the coming weeks with the approach of Thanksgiving and winter holidays.
Airlines, which have warned of long queues at first, will check vaccination documentation for international travellers as they already do for COVID-19 test results.
U.S. land borders are also reopening to non-essential travel, though differing rules over coronavirus vaccines threaten to hold up some family reunions for people seeking to cross the 2,000 mile (3,200 km) border with Mexico.
The prospect of easing restrictions has also encouraged migrants to try their luck seeking U.S. asylum, posing a new test for President Joe Biden’s administration.
At the land border crossings from Mexico and Canada, U.S. Customs and Border Protection will ask travellers if they have been vaccinated and will spot-check some documentation.
Under-18s are exempt from the new vaccine requirements. Non-tourist travellers from nearly 50 countries with nationwide vaccination rates of less than 10% are also eligible for exemption.