The problems facing the industry have been compounded by the introduction of ‘red list’ countries and quarantine hotels
The introduction of quarantine hotels for ‘red list’ countries builds on a “mountain of existing measures for travel”, ABTA has said.
The travel association said that the industry needs to “see a clear plan for how [restrictions] will be lifted” after the government said it was attempting to stop mutant Covid strains from reaching the UK.
“In order to reduce the risk posed by UK nationals and residents returning home from these countries, I can announce that we will require all such arrivals who cannot be refused entry to isolate in government provided accommodation, such as hotels, for 10 days without exception,” the prime minister Boris Johnson said.
He said the government would “enforce this at ports and airports by asking people why they are leaving and instructing them to return home if they do not have a valid reason to travel”. There are 30 countries on the “red list”, including all of South America, as well as large parts of Southern Africa and Portugal.
An ABTA spokesperson said: “We understand the government’s need to introduce temporary additional restrictions in response to emerging new strains of the virus, but this needs to come with support for the jobs and businesses affected and a clear roadmap forward for travel.
“It is now 12 months since the travel industry started to be affected by coronavirus, yet the government has still not provided any tailored financial support to the sector. Jobs are being lost at an alarming rate and longstanding businesses have gone to the wall.
“The lack of financial support targeted at addressing the consequences for businesses of international travel restrictions needs to be addressed as a matter of urgency. The government needs to work with the industry to develop a route forward for reopening travel, reviewing all of the existing measures and coordinating with overseas governments.
“While the vaccine rollout is positive, the industry cannot wait for the whole UK adult population to be vaccinated before travel restarts – and businesses cannot afford to lose another summer.
“We also know that many people have a desire to get back to experiences that they value highly and have missed dearly, including travel to visit family and friends abroad.”
Zina Bencheikh, managing director EMEA at Intrepid Travel, said: “It’s absolutely right that the government does what’s necessary for public safety in light of the global pandemic. However, further restrictions on international travel will of course have an impact on how confident people feel to book holidays for this summer and beyond.
“We need more clarity on an end date and pathway out of the current restrictions to give customers and the industry a chance to plan ahead. The impact of this on the travel industry means that it’s now essential that bespoke financial support is provided – not just for aviation, but for the wider industry which is directly impacted by these measures.”
We speak to Mark Tanzer about why the future of travel remains positive, but the government needs to do a lot more to help the industry see out the pandemic
ABTA Magazine: The Save Future Travel Coalition has said that the government must ensure that travel can operate in a risk-controlled manner. Can you tell me a bit more about that?
Mark Tanzer: Last month, we saw the further tightening of travel restrictions. With the introduction of ‘red’ countries, the hotel quarantine [plan] and the home secretary standing up saying ‘holidays are illegal’, we have this extraordinary situation. It’s the latest level of restrictions added to those the travel industry has been facing since last March. It affects the here and now, but also potentially the desire to book holidays for later in the year.
So, we’re saying that we understand the priority the government is giving to getting the infection rate down and preventing variants of the virus coming into the country until we’re further advanced with the vaccination programme, but we need a clear way out. Does vaccination, testing, plus more selective quarantine requirements for countries add up to allowing people to travel again? We are working together to put something together that allows that to happen.
Obviously, we want people back travelling in the summer, by which stage not everyone in all countries will have been vaccinated, but people who have been vaccinated will want to travel. If you open up the borders then there is an increased risk that someone could come into the country with [Covid], but if we don’t want anyone coming in, then you’re not going to get the travel industry moving. So, we have to move away from a categorical shutdown, which is where we are at the moment, to easing those restrictions and finding a certain risk level we are able to tolerate.
How has the travel industry had to change its messaging in light of recent developments?
The vaccine program is obviously further advanced, which is good news. But what we need to know is do the vaccines work against different variants? [The most recent reports] seem to be saying they do. That’s important, because it becomes a question of whether or not you’ve been successfully vaccinated [against all strains], and that can change the attitudes about letting people into the country. So, there are medical and testing developments that need to be decided upon in order to get us moving.
Do Matt Hancock’s comments about having a “great British summer” suggest to you that it’s going to be a difficult summer ahead for the travel industry?
Those comments don’t help at all. No politician knows exactly when people will be able to travel internationally again, so to say you shouldn’t be booking a summer holiday, that’s the wrong thing to say. If people don’t book holidays companies will struggle, but also, it’s too early to say [something like that], because they don’t know the answer to those medical questions. So, I think we’re very keen that the entire travel industry – and that includes domestic holidays as well – is able to have a good summer, and we’re going to be pushing to get a plan in place from the government as quickly as possible.
The travel industry has not received the same level of direct support that others have – hospitality, for instance. I think the government saw [things through the prism of] the physical inability of people to go into premises because of social distancing. What we’ve been arguing, and now it’s even more the case, is that it’s stopping bookings and demand and therefore travel businesses should be, and must be, supported by the government [with targeted measures]. The government needs to look at all aspects of the industry, including operations and travel agents, as well airlines and airports.
We’ve gone from having travel corridors opening and closing to a new ‘red’ list, with Test to Release and the plan for hotel quarantine in the background. Will these confusing and overlapping measures have a residual impact on people’s appetite for travel even after restrictions are lifted?
Our customer research has found that people are 20 per cent more likely to use travel advisers than before Covid, and that’s for a number of reasons, but partially so they can tread their way through this very complicated set restrictions. It’s a moving target. What we have at the moment is belts and braces, but they are actually quite distinct non-pharmaceutical interventions. What we need is to really organise things so it’s much easier for a customer to understand what the deal is: whether they need to get tested before they travel, when they come back, how that’s going work and where they’re going to get it done. And, if they’ve been vaccinated, how does that change the picture? But, at the moment, we haven’t got the ability to put that clear proposition to customers. Clearly, that affects confidence.
Ultimately, was the travel corridor system worth it, with many changes that ultimately led to refunds being needed?
Anything that that allows us to travel, I think, without quarantine restrictions is good. You don’t want the chopping and changing, and the way you’re having to react to what happens with the virus. But any mechanism that means once infection rates drop in a particular place, and that destination represents a lower risk and therefore people can travel with fewer obstacles, I think that should be welcomed.
In a parallel world where the government embraced Covid Zero, totally closed borders and banned travel for the entire year, but said they would provide the necessary support, would the travel industry would have supported it?
It’s hard to say. I think when we started out, we didn’t know how long it would last, or whether we’d have a summer 2020, or summer 2021. Some countries – New Zealand, France, Italy among them – have had packages specifically for tour operators and the travel industry. We look at them with envy, because their governments have seen them as being significant and put in the infrastructure. However, the UK is a global economy on a different scale to the likes of New Zealand and locking everything down early was a big political decision to make. According to the current medical view, it seems going harder earlier would have helped us not be in this situation now.
Have you been surprised by the unwillingness of the government to properly engage with the industry and its demands, given how important travel and tourism is to the UK economy?
I’m disappointed, not surprised. They haven’t really shown much interest to engage in the past. We’re split between so many different government departments, because of [tourism’s] very nature. So, we’re dealing with the Treasury and dealing with the Department for Transport, we’re dealing with BEIS [Department for Business, Energy & Industrial Strategy], the Foreign Office, all of which have a piece of the picture, but not all of it. And I think maybe that is one of the reasons why no particular department feels, from a budget or policy point of view, that it owns the problem.
We’ve be trying to join the dots and get other departments to talk to each other; organising the roundtables and workshops, bringing the government departments together with the industry, to be able to put that picture across. I think, stepping back, they’ve got a lot of competing claims – we’re not the only sector saying we need support – and there’s a limited amount of money to go around. I don’t think we should be given it by right, but by the strength of the arguments, and I think we’ve made those.
What gives you confidence in the future of travel?
There is big pent-up demand. When we conducted research at the turn of the year, before the last restrictions were introduced, we found that 60 per cent of people said that they are hopeful they would be able to take a European holiday this year. The whole experience of lockdown has reminded people of how important travel is, and their desire is still very strong – to go to places they might not have gone to before or return to places that they’re familiar with. What gives me confidence is there is a lot of demand for when [restrictions] are eased and the industry is able to move again.
Another point is that it’s given us time to think about how we want to balance tourism with the interests of [the environment]. Although I would never wish the pandemic on anyone, let alone the travel industry, I think there are some good things that we can take from it and build on as we go forward. I have absolutely no doubt that the underlying demand is strong – and that it may even been stronger than before.