“Disappointed” travel industry leaders say the government has “missed” an opportunity to provide certainty around international travel this summer in the prime minister’s Easter Monday update.
Boris Johnson said he was “hopeful” that the earliest possible resumption date of May 17 can be achieved but warned of rising case numbers in some overseas destinations.
A government document released this evening also confirmed the introduction of a traffic light system – but it did not reveal which countries would be on the green, amber and red lists.
Abta chief executive Mark Tanzer welcomed confirmation of the traffic light system, but warned: “We need to see the details in the Global Travel Taskforce report”.
He said the industry’s “priority” is “a more stable system which avoids the situation of last summer where travel to many destinations was quickly turned on and off” and said it is “vital” government clarifies how the transition between green, amber and red levels will work, “both to help travel businesses plan ahead and to provide reassurance for travellers”.
Tanzer added: “Destinations should not be suddenly closed off unless variants of concern dictate that this must happen.”
He said “the goal must be to have unrestricted travel to ‘green’ destinations” and said current testing costs “may be a deterrent to many UK travellers”, urging government to “ensure that testing is required only where the public health risk justifies it”.
Tanzer pointed to Abta research which suggests 63% of people hope to book a holiday abroad and urged them to book package holidays for “the best level of protection should circumstances change”.
Airlines UK welcomed the removal of self-isolation for arrivals from green countries. But chief executive Tim Alderslade said Johnson’s announcement “does not provide the clarity we were seeking on the roadmap back towards normality”.
He said: “We await further details but the measures indicated, including the potential for multiple tests for travellers even from ‘green countries’, will prevent meaningful travel even to low-risk destinations.
“Of critical importance will be moving countries – transparently – through the tiers into ‘green’, reviewing measures urgently in light of the latest and best available evidence so that they are effective but also proportionate to the risk, and crucially embracing cost-effective rapid testing thus ensuring the alignment of international travel with the domestic economy, which will be so important for the UK’s economic recovery.”
Heathrow chief executive John Holland-Kaye said the announcement “provides some clarity on how testing and vaccine rollouts will facilitate the safe resumption of global flying”
But he added: “It’s disappointing that the opportunity has been missed to provide more certainty to reunite families separated by travel restrictions, to give sunseekers the confidence to book ahead for their summer getaway and to help businesses across the country that have had their exporting ambitions placed on hold by the pandemic.
“Now that a safe, scientifically-backed process has been agreed upon, a clearer timeline for the return to international travel is needed.”
Airport Operators Association chief executive Karen Dee said she was “disappointed” the update “continues to suggest significant barriers to international travel, and may push back the date of restart beyond May 17”.
She said a new green category in the traffic light system, with no isolation requirement on return to the UK, is “very welcome” but warned “potentially costly and onerous testing requirements” could limit people’s ability to take advantage of them.
Dee said she would look to the Global Travel Taskforce’s report on April 12 and called for a “risk-based, proportionate system” to “open up aviation without quarantine and with affordable, rapid testing”.
She warned: “Any prolonged closure of UK airports’ key destinations in Europe in particular will have major financial impacts that the government will need to mitigate.”
Clive Wratten, chief executive of the Business Travel Association, said Johnson’s announcement was “beyond disappointing”. He said: “If we are to re-start our economy, we need to have a clear pathway to international travel and trade. This has once again been kicked down the road.
“To be a truly global Britain, we must lead the way in opening borders, supporting vital supply chains, and digitising health certification. The business travel industry continues to be crippled by today’s lack of movement.”
Wratten called on the government “to be confident in its roadmap” when the Global Travel Taskforce reports on April 12, which he said was “our last resort”.
Joanne Dooey, president of the Scottish Passenger Agents’ Association (SPAA), said: “We’re disappointed that there wasn’t a clear roadmap for international travel in the prime minister’s announcement but we are confident that work continues behind the scenes and we hope to hear firm plans in coming the weeks.
She said the sector needs a “four nations approach” to restarting international travel in a “phased return” and said not only holidaymakers but those visiting relatives overseas were affected. Dooey stressed: “This is not all about sun, sangria and suntans” and said the resumption of operations was “critical” to the economies of Scotland and the UK.
On the traffic light system, Dooey said: “This system has to have clarity and we all need to know the data which will trigger the move from one category to another. This should be published so that travel agents can advise their clients from a position of knowledge. Moreover, this should be an internationally-agreed system.”
Dooey also backed vaccine certification for international travel, saying “the concept of certificates is a tried and tested one”.
She accepted the need for testing to play a role in international travel, but said the cost was currently “too high to be affordable for the average family”.
Aito chairman Chris Rowles said: “This is death by back-stabbing, with no sector-specific support whatsoever proffered to help the outbound industry to survive the coming weeks and months until travel abroad is again feasible to whichever countries are on the green and amber traffic light lists.
“Aito’s 200-plus specialist holiday companies and specialist travel agents, along with plenty of other travel businesses that sell overseas travel, have been left to rot by this deceitful and simply uncaring government.
“Rather than discussing anything with the outbound industry, or offering us help – as they have with the creative arts and hospitality sectors, listed by the government’s own Office for National Statistics as second and third worst hit industries, they’ve simply ignored us and treated us as if we don’t exist.”
Gemma Antrobus, chair of Aito Specialist Agents, tweeted to say: “So Boris is ‘hopeful’ for international travel to start again from 17th May…… unhelpful Boris….maddeningly unhelpful!”
Manuel Cortes, general secretary of transport and travel union TSSA, said the prime minister has “kicked that down the road, dashing hopes across our travel trade”.
He said the trade “badly needs certainty” and that “it is not too late for the government to give this sector the bespoke support it so badly needs and which so far has not been forthcoming”.
UKinbound welcomed the traffic light system. Chief executive Joss Croft called for a “robust four nations approach to reopening” when the Global Travel Taskforce reports on April 12.
He added: “A stop-start restart is one of the biggest threats to our sector and it’s therefore crucial that government implements the recommendations of the taskforce and continues its dialogue with industry, which will aid consumer confidence to travel to and holiday in the UK.
“But the restart will not happen overnight, and it will take many, many months, and, as long as restrictions are in place at our borders, businesses will struggle to survive, warranting the need for urgent sector specific support.”
Flight Centre Travel Group EMEA managing director Steve Norris said he hoped the announcement would go further “to provide the lifeboat we’ve been hoping for to get travel back on its feet”.
He said: “The plan to introduce a traffic light scheme is certainly a step in the right direction to reopen our borders safely while taking into account high levels of Covid on the continent and varied vaccination rollouts.
“The travel industry cannot afford another summer of indecision and hesitancy if it is to survive; we stand with the rest of the travel industry in our hopes that the government will reassure Brits that they are able to book much-desired summer trips safely with trusted travel agents and avoid another summer of stop-start travel and uncertainty.
“We are yet to hear details of the regulations in each traffic light segment, if we are to reopen to travel on 17 May, the industry needs time to prepare.
“Flight Centre also supports the government’s plan to trial a Covid Passport scheme to reopen events in the UK and hopes the Iata Travel Pass, due to go live in April, can work as a similar trial to streamline the complex testing certificate procedure for international trips.
“Consumers have been calling for a data-based approach to travel reopening and trialling this digital passenger platform is a sensible option to facilitate international travel.
“If the trial is successful, we hope the consumer-friendly interface will help dispel some of the confusion that has shrouded travel following a year of constantly changing rules and encourage safe holidays this summer.”
Consumer group Which? said confirmation of the traffic light system “will be welcome news to both industry and holidaymakers”.
Travel editor Rory Boland warned: “The cost of private tests mean millions risk being priced out of travel – so the government must urgently look at ways to reduce these costs before it reopens international travel.”
He added: “With the government confirming countries will move between the red, amber and green lists, it is also crucial that travellers know that they won’t be left out of pocket when changes do take place. We’re likely to face a summer of further disruption as health situations fluctuate, so airlines and holiday companies should be upfront about the risks and the disruption their flexible booking policies do and don’t cover.”