Agents and operators have reiterated demands for targeted support for the sector after Portugal was abruptly removed from the government’s green list of ‘safe’ travel destinations.
More than 112,000 Britons estimated to be on holiday in Portugal face the prospect of scambling to organise return flights by 4am on Tuesday when the country goes into the amber category in the government’s traffic light system for international travel or face ten days of quarantine at home on their return.
Conrad Poulson, chief executive officer at mobility research firm Huq Industries, said: “Assuming the largest capacity Boeing 737 or equivalent can carry around 230 people that equates to around 487 flights to get every one of the remaining 112,177 people home.
“When you also factor in the five-day window (Tuesday 8th June) before Portugal goes on the amber list, this rough calculation gives a sense of the scale of the issue for holidaymakers and those charged with getting them home.”
Algarve Tourism president Joao Fernandes said: “As you can imagine we are bitterly disappointed to be moved to the amber list.
“In the Algarve region we host two thirds of the British overnight hotel stays in Portugal. And since the start of the pandemic the Algarve has had the lowest number of cases and better indicators than the rest of the country.
“Furthermore, Portugal has one of the highest levels of pandemic control and prevention in the EU, according to indicators in the latest ECDC (European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control) report.
“The millions of Brits that visit us each year contribute to the livelihoods of many people in the region. Our hotels, tour operators and airline partners will also once again be put in a difficult situation, trying to plan around these ever-changing rules.
“For holidaymakers it is an impossible situation trying to book a holiday overseas, and I sympathise with those that were looking forward to visiting our beautiful region for a well-deserved break.
“We hope they will re-arrange their holiday to the Algarve for later in the year rather than cancel completely.”
Danny Callaghan, chair of the Travel Industry Alliance and chief executive of the Latin American Travel Association described the change as “extremely disappointing”.
He said: “We appear to have returned to the shambolic on-off messaging from the government that we suffered last year with the travel corridors. This makes a complete mockery of the work that industry has done with the Global Travel Taskforce to create a sustainable roadmap for the restart of tourism, and this will surely be the nail in the coffin of tourism for summer 2021.
“Rates of cases in Portugal mirror the UK almost exactly, so it is not immediately apparent what the criteria being applied is.
“We urgently need absolute clarity from the government over the criteria being applied, as well as a commitment to financially support the industry until such time as travel can restart in a meaningful way with new bookings coming through.
“I’d like to call on all members of the travel industry to urgently write to their MP and encourage them to take part in the parliamentary debate on support for the aviation, travel and tourism Industries that is taking place on June 10.”
Aito chairman Chris Rowles warned: “Changing Portugal from green to amber at short notice – despite telling us that more notice would be given – is not going to encourage consumer confidence, and it will bring the tiny number of bookings that have been coming in daily to a juddering halt.
“It will also create even more confusion and a demand for refunds, which customers will not be entitled to should they decline to travel.
“We know that this pandemic is not going to go away in the near future – that we will have to continue to follow the “hands, face, space” mantra for the foreseeable future.
“So, if no travel businesses are going to be allowed to trade this summer, after 15 months of zero income/considerable cash outflow, there is now one key thing that the government needs to deliver to tour operators, travel agents and others at the travel coal face – the long-overdue sector-specific support that government has squirmed out of delivering to date, despite our very obvious plight and its own statisticians at the Office for National Statistics stating travel to be the worst-affected service sector of all UK industries.
“Our message is crystal clear – pay up, prime minister, chancellor and fellow ministers, without delay.
“Tour operators and travel agents need significant sector-specific payments, and we need them quickly. You have ignored our considerable problems to date, although the aviation minister very recently managed to find £67 million for the aviation sector – but travel is much more than just aviation. You know that furloughing staff is impossible for many travel companies due to the amount of changes, cancellations and deferrals involved, which earn us no money whatsoever, but which cost us dear in terms of paying staff and other office-related costs.
“The solution is simple: significant cash directed, urgently, straight to tour operators, travel agents and others in the dark hole that is currently the formerly vibrant travel industry. Significant sector-specific payments are vital, and speed is of the essence.”
Graeme Brett , co-founder of Travel Agents Reform Group Engaged Together (Target), said: There many been many calls for targeted support for the travel industry but nothing has specified what that support should be.
“So many of our travel agent members have shared their stories of how they have missed out on financial support by either not qualifying or being unable to claim furlough because their staff had to work to deal with cancellations.”
Joanne Dooey, president of The Scottish Passenger Agents’ Association (SPAA), said: “Travel agents have run out of words to describe their feelings of shock at the various measures which have been introduced – and revoked – since the start of the pandemic.
“We described the situation of ‘travel corridors’ last year as the hokey cokey as we didn’t know from one week to the next which countries would be in or out. This year with the introduction of the traffic lights, all we have is a more colourful version of the hokey cokey – which is after all a comical and ridiculous child’s game.
“It’s a fallacy to say that there is a green list for Scotland as with the removal of Portugal, which was effectively the only country we could fly to from Scotland, we’ve added another colour – as Scotland seems black-listed.
“This isn’t just about those holidaying in the Algarve who travel agents will have to work, for no income, to repatriate or those who will have to self-isolate for 10 days and take expensive tests; it’s about the systematic dismantling of Scotland’s travel sector. At the same time as the wholescale destruction of our country’s travel sector there is no support to speak of for businesses in the aviation, travel and tourism industry battling to save Scotland’s travel.”
Dnata Travel Group divisional senior vice president John Bevan said: “While we respect the fact that the government’s priority has to be public health, today’s announcement will mystify the travel industry. Thanks to the success of localised lockdowns and vaccination programmes, an increasing number of destinations meet or exceed the criteria we’re told must be met for a destination to open up.
“You begin to wonder what other agendas are in play, when decisions taken contradict the very criteria we and our customers were presented with just a few short weeks ago.
“Our industry, which is worth billions to the UK economy and employs thousands, cannot go on with this uncertainty and unpredictability indefinitely.
“Targeted support for what were well-run businesses has to be forthcoming. If the government is determined to pull the rug out from under the industry like this, then it has a duty to help break the fall.”
Which? Travel editor Rory Boland said: “Many people who booked holidays to Portugal believing it would be a safe bet are going to now face difficult decisions over whether to travel against government advice and quarantine on their return, or potentially lose the cost of their holiday.
“Few tour operators and no airlines allow for refunds when a country changes from green to amber, and rebooking very often involves paying more money.
“The government should take greater responsibility for making sure travellers are not left out of pocket when changes are made to its travel lists.
“A crucial step towards this would be to ensure destinations on the amber and red lists also come with a warning against travel from the FCDO, which should trigger package holiday providers to offer refunds to those who can no longer travel.”
Club Med UK and northern Europe managing director Estelle Giraudeau said: “It is a double blow for the travel industry to not only have no further countries added to the UK government’s green list, but also to relegate Portugal to the amber list at the same time.
“This destination has been a longstanding favourite with British tourists and within 24 hours of the country being added to the green list, sales for our resort in the Algarve, Da Balaia, increased by 1,500% compared with the same period in 2019.
“For any upcoming bookings to this resort, our customers can be reassured that they can change their destination and date without paying an amendment fee, providing the new departure date is before 31st December 2021.
“We can only hope for more positive news regarding international travel to come from the UK government in the coming weeks, and we look forward to resuming as normal and safe practice as soon as possible.”
Chris Etheridge, business development manager at CV Villas in Madeira, said: “The locals in Maderia are gutted to hear the latest news and don’t understand the decision made by the UK government, as cases continue to remain extremely low on the island.
“I have spent the last two days touring around the island with a local tour company, who only restarted their operation last month following the green list announcement. This was devastating news for them after the prospect of a bumper summer from UK tourists.
“My hotel mentioned that they had already received cancellations from travellers from the UK who are due to arrive in the coming weeks since the speculation in the press this afternoon.
“This decision made by the government is another let down for the industry after we were promised a ‘green watch list’ in the Global Travel Taskforce report last month.
“CV Villas received increased demand in bookings for the Algarve and the Douro Valley in Portugal over the last few weeks and are deeply disappointed that the destination will move over to the amber list from next week.
“CV Villas flexible policies continue to provide travel agents and their customers confidence for bookings travelling over the summer months.”
Travel Counsellors global sales director Jim Eastwood said: “It’s disappointing to hear that the latest government decisions on travel do not include any additions to the green list, and that one of our most popular holiday destinations, Portugal, will move to the amber list on Tuesday.
“Many of our customers were reporting some wonderful experiences in Portuguese resorts in recent weeks, after being fully supported to navigate outbound and inbound testing requirements.
“Despite current uncertainty, customers are still booking travel for later in the year, with the most popular destinations this summer being Greece, Spain and the USA. They are doing so by taking advantage of flexible booking policies, ensuring that they have adequate travel insurance and that their money is fully financial protected.
“We need to continue to instil traveller confidence this summer with more clarity on where we can travel to safely, and more affordable testing requirements, as we keep traveller health and wellbeing at the forefront of all our activity.
“Travel has of course become more complex than ever, with the traffic light system and latest FCDO advice to navigate. Placing travel plans in the hands of an experienced travel professional has never felt so important.”
Flight Centre EMEA man aging director Steve Norris was “flummoxed” by the decision to make changes to the traffic light system with such little notice.
He said: “Earlier this year, Grant Shapps promised a two-to-three-week notice period, or ‘green watchlist’ before a country changed from green to amber in order to prevent another summer of stop-start travel. This would allow travel companies time to support customers returning to the UK, while giving consumers the confidence to travel safely.
“We implore the transport secretary to reconsider this quick-turnaround, late notice approach to amending the green list and hold true to his promise of a two-to-three-week notice period that the industry and holidaymakers desperately need.”
The Department for Transport said: “The decision to move Portugal (including Madeira and the Azores) to the amber list follows increased concern in the spread of variants of coronavirus, including a mutation of the Delta variant, and the risk that is posed of bringing these back to the UK if people are not required to quarantine.
“The situation in Portugal has required swift action to protect the gains made with the vaccine rollout – there has been an almost doubling in the Covid-19 test positivity rate in Portugal since the first review for traffic light allocations, far exceeding the ONS estimated national positivity rate in the UK.”