Organisers of the coordinated Travel Day of Action lobby reported a “change in sentiment” from politicians, who they say increasingly understand the issues the industry faces.
Lobbies were held on London, Edinburgh and Belfast on Wednesday, with a virtual lobby yaking place in Wales – calling for a safe resumption of international travel and sector-specific support for the travel industry.
But while the leaders of travel agent groups told a Travel Weekly webcast they were positive about the tone received from MPs, MSPs, and members of the Northern Ireland and Welsh assemblies, they urged all four nations to align, particularly for a restart of international travel.
The video was filmed in advance of the transport secretary’s Thursday night updates, which saw a commitment to quarantine-free travel from amber list destinations and more countries added to the green list from next Wednesday.
Julia Lo Bue-Said, chief executive of the Advantage Travel Partnership was representing the lobby at Westminster.
She said: “We’re certainly seeing a change in tone. We’re certainly seeing a change in sentiment. What’s helped is the government messing up it’s own agenda. They’ve made some really poor decisions, some errors of judgement and that will help us in the long-run.”
She said this included the initial borer policy, and the recent decision on the Delta variant first located in India which she said “didn’t help us, but it really hasn’t helped the government”.
Lo Bue-Said said the “absolutely shambolic” way the government handled Portugal’s removal from the green list was another major factor for the public blaming the government, not the industry, for the situation that left thousands of holidaymakers rushing to get home after plans were changed last minute.
And she also said this week’s decision to allow Uefa VIPs in for football matches in the European Championships at Wembley demonstrated “big wigs are allowed to get in”, which she said was unfair.
Lo-Bue Said noted Johnson’s cabinet is “a populist government so they need the public on side,” but noted “a number of fundamental issues where they have not done the right thing, and therefore public opinion is changing.”
That, “against a backdrop of vaccination deployment success”, means “we’re seeing signs of things moving forward”, she added.
But she noted domestic restrictions, in place until July 19, would need to be eased before international travel resumes.
Lo Bue-Said pointed to “pressure building” on the government to ease limits on international travel. She was speaking ahead of Thursday’s traffic light review, when Grant Shapps committed to introducing quarantine-free travel from amber list destinations ‘later in the summer’.
The update saw Northern Ireland’s green list announced first, at around 6:30pm, with 16 destinations added to the green list, and seven added to the red list. Scotland followed with an announcement at 19:09, with the government only naming three of its green list additions and two of its red list additions in its official statement. Transport secretary Grant Shapps, meanwhile, made the announcement of England’s lists over Twitter at approximately 19:45, before the Department for Transport followed up with an official statement shortly before 20:00 that noted six red list additions as well as the green list updates.
The industry leaders on the webcast had earlier called for a four nations approach.
Damian Murphy, chairman of the Association of Northern Ireland Travel Agents (ANITA), had pointed out that Stormont leaders don’t have their own transport minister and tend to follow Westminster’s lead on international travel decisions, noting they have previously taken “two weeks” if a destination moves from amber to green or “ten minutes” if it moves the other way.
“From that point of view we’re in a no-win situation,” he said, but stressed: “We’ve made it very clear about our two asks.”
He said he was more focussed on the “coming weeks and months” and achieving sector-specific support for the travel industry than the imediate resumption, and said further meetings were set up on that as a result of the lobbying.
Murphy also pointed out that the Republic of Ireland, which shares a border with Northern Ireland but is in the EU, is working towards a July 19 resumption.
Joanne Dooey, president of the Scottish Passenger Agents’ Association (SPAA), said the restart will come too late for some members, with two having told her they are due to close next week.
She said Scotland was similar to Northern Ireland and had expected it to “wait to see what Westminster does”.
She said the SPAA’s lobby focus was also sector-specific support. “That’s what we need more,” she told the webcast, noting that when travel does resume it “won’t be the same as before” for some time.
But she said: “We’re not giving up now. There were a lot of people on our side today.” Dooey said “a lot” of MSPs “understood our plight and that we are looking for some clarity on international travel and getting some funding.”
Helen Tustin, who organised the virtual lobby in Wales, said Welsh politicians told her decisions on international travel are “down to Westminster” before Welsh authorities sign decisions off.
She said there was “total overtourism” from the domestic market in Wales and called for all four nations to “agree on one thing”. “We can’t have everybody thinking differently,” she said.
Lo Bue-Said agreed on the importance of a four nation approach, and said it was “crazy” and “exceptionally complex” not to go down that route.
“It’s something we’ve talked about,” she said, but added: “Unfortunately we are where we are. It won’t change now but we have to be thinking for the future how these policies align.”
In terms of next steps, Lo Bue-Said said: “This [lobbying] isn’t a silver bullet and it doesn’t mean that everything is going to open up and we’re going to be off on our travels.
“It’s going to be slow. The domestic roadmap is still restrictive and we’ve got to wait and see what happens there.
But Lo Bue-Said said “we have to remain optimistic, we have to be positive, we do have MPs that are supporting us. The only way we can influence change is by lobbying MPs.”
She said the industry could benefit from proposed legal challenges, but warned the process could be difficult and lengthy.
However, she said the threat of such action helped create “more and more pressure” which she said “we have to keep up”. “It’s really important we don’t give up now,” she said.
Dooey added: “The fight will carry on, believe me.”