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Comment: The tourism crisis hidden beneath the headlines

Outlawing European identity cards could spell disaster for British inbound tourism, says Vox Group’s chief marketing officer John Boulding

We’ve been in such a tizzy over the pandemic’s threat to tourism prosperity, with its vaccines, traffic lights and quarantine issues, that we’ve failed to properly acknowledge an even bigger peril that lurks in the shadows.

In its wisdom, the UK government announced a year ago that from Friday October 1, 2021, European identity cards would no longer be valid travel documents for inbound visitors to Britain.

It cited widespread forgeries and organised crime as the reason for the ban, despite identity cards being at least as secure as passports, and much more widely adopted in Europe.

Let’s look at the numbers.

National identity cards are issued to the citizens of 25 member states of the European Economic Area (the EEA comprises the EU plus several other countries). Switzerland too provides identity cards and while it is outside the EEA it also belongs to the ‘single market’ club. The only identity document exceptions are Denmark, Iceland and Ireland. However, Ireland provides a ‘passport card’, which has the same benefits for travellers as an identity card.

What about passports?

Take Italy, for instance. With a population of 61 million, estimates suggest there are some 50 million residents with identity cards, compared to circa 20 million with current passports. A similar picture is repeated across the continent. The upshot is that identity cards are the primary travel document for a great many of the 450 million citizens of 26 nations of the single market. They carry them in their wallets alongside their credit cards and travel freely within the whole area, whenever and wherever they like.

So, what does this mean for a post-Brexit, post-pandemic Britain that is desperately trying but currently failing to recover its sixth position in the European tourism ranking? To be blunt, there is a disaster on the near horizon, and it’s heading our way.

Imagine you are a family of five living in Paris: remember those days of popping over to London for a short break in the car, or with a low-cost carrier? Well, you can forget them. Even if you still desire to go, despite being on the receiving end of a highly-publicised negative British attitude to the EU, now you must apply and pay for five passports – and endure the bureaucracy. So, instead, you decide to head to Barcelona, Rome, or Berlin.

Last year, the uncomfortable truth was that inbound tourism to the UK dropped by 73%, from nearly 40.9 million visitors in 2019 to a depressing 11.1 million in 2020.

In 2019, 3.1 million people in the UK worked in tourism (which was 9.6% of all UK jobs); and visitors spent £28.4 billion (which is £7 billion more than we spend each year on the entire UK police force).

I’m always an optimist, but even I predict we won’t see real inbound tourism recovery until at least Easter 2022.

The summer might be strong for long-haul visitors because of the ‘rebound’ effect, but if the Europeans continue to stay away, then the huge drop in visitors will further damage the inbound travel industry and the wider economy through lack of tourism spend, employment loss and drops in VAT collection.

Vox Group is in a unique position to compare destinations. We have over 50 offices across the world serving all sectors in tourism and culture.

Our London Vox City Walks operation has had immense support from the industry, yet the inbound tourists themselves aren’t here to buy it.

In two weeks, Vox City Walks in Paris sold more than London in four months while cities across Italy and Portugal are in similarly-high demand.

Working with an innovative new product that is buoyant across Europe yet struggling in my hometown because of the government’s calamitous approach to tourism is very frustrating.

We’ve got to urgently address this. We need to be done with travel obstacles and document debacles.

It took too long to ditch the much-maligned traffic light system. We can’t afford to hit another red light with identity cards.

There is no doubt it is time for a rethink…

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