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Belgium bans leisure travel until March amid fears over COVID variants

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By Bryan Carter
Belgian police officers control travellers of the Eurostar train earlier this month
Belgian police officers control travellers of the Eurostar train earlier this month   -   Copyright  NICOLAS MAETERLINCK / BELGA / AFP

Belgium is banning all leisure travel abroad for its citizens as of next week and until March, in an effort to contain the spread of COVID-19 and its virulent variants.

Prime Minister Alexander De Croo said Friday that “when people travel, the virus travels with them."

Only essential business, family, and humanitarian travel will still be allowed from next week until March.

He said visitors from Britain, South Africa, and South America will have to quarantine for ten days to make sure they don't bring dangerous variants into Belgium.

According to a number of reports, the country's Coordination Committee took the measure through concerns regarding the spread of new variants as well as the fear of a potential third wave.

The move came a day after the 27 European Union leaders said that borders within the bloc needed to remain open to assure essential transport and movement of workers, but left it up to member states to take other measures they deemed necessary.

Over the past year, Belgium has seen a spike in cases after popular holidays because of returning travellers.

February is the traditional month for Belgians to go skiing in the Alps or fly down south for warmth.

Travel agencies in Belgium have already been hit hard by the coronavirus pandemic, with the grounding of flights, travel restrictions, and fears of catching COVID-19 leading to a steep fall in reservations.

Euronews spoke to one agency in the capital Brussels that would usually be busy at this time of year.

But according to a spokesperson for its parent company, the pandemic has led to the closure of 20% of its agencies, and a cut back of one-third of its staff.

Frank Bosteels, a spokesman for Connections, said: “Business is down by about 88%. In normal times, Connections would have a volume of 180,000 travellers per year. In the last year, we haven’t had any new bookings.”

Travel agencies and tour operators across Belgium are echoing this situation, which directly threatens thousands of tourism workers.

All were hoping for travel to pick up again this year, before the summer break. But the Belgian government’s decision to further restrict non-essential travels is frustrating the hopes of many in the industry.

Bosteels told Euronews: “We believe that it would have been possible to let people travel, in a controlled way if the measures had been put in place. We are sorry to witness that roughly one year after the start of the pandemic, nothing has really been put in place to make travel in a safe way possible today.”

At this Thursday’s EU virtual summit, leaders of the bloc "strongly discouraged" Europeans from non-essential travel and warned that tougher restrictions could come within days.

For tourists in Belgium, and across Europe, this means that the sunny break away from home will probably just have to wait.